Gendered nature of Nepal's labour migration: From pre-departure
When young women and girls rode their bicycles and paved their paths in the streets of inner Madhesh, I thought this was what freedom looked like. The calm wind brushed against their skin while they took command of their direction; the scene was almost breathtaking for a not-so-confident biker like me. Cycling around the neighbourhood to go to school or run errands, though it looked liberating, it does not provide a complete picture of women's freedom of mobility in Nepal.
Migration has become an inseparable part of Nepali lives, whether internally or internationally. While people from urban places fly abroad, people from rural areas are fleeing their hometowns to fill the empty urban space. There is a bitter irony to this scenario. I left the country around six years ago to pursue my higher education in the United States. Limited in exposure and passionate about brain drain, I had a narrow perspective towards migration and people who left Nepal. It took me, I would say, leaving behind my family and my entire life in Nepal while listening to stories of countless immigrants abroad to finally understand why they go.
One of the most common reasons for millions of Nepali to move across continents is to sell their labour due to multiple factors: lack of employment, poverty, socioeconomic factors, gender inequality, gender-based violence, and more. Nepal's Department of Foreign Employment annually issues an average of 500,000-600,000 labour approvals, and more than 200,000 labour migrants renewed their approvals in 2021/22. Besides data, the reflection in mainstream pop culture also speaks volumes about Nepal's rapid increase in labour migration. I was in Grade 2 when there was not a single soul in my school and neighbourhood who had not watched Muglan (2005), a Nepali movie that depicts the story of every other household, of brother-like friends leaving the country to make money. The same goes with the song Sunko Bala (2004), which tells the story of a husband who goes to the Gulf for the "false hope" of a better life but returns in a coffin. These projects still touch hearts because labour migration has impacted almost every middle and low-income household in Nepal. As sung in the Nepali plightful song Saili (2017), millions of migrant workers and their families share the emotion of finally enjoying their life after they reach the age of forty. This is the age when most workers retire from foreign employment, and return to their home country, if alive, hopefully with some savings.
Stories of the suffering of the labour migrants have been told again and again as tales, songs, movies, and interviews; however, why is it always assumed that the migrant worker is a man? While it is true that labour migration in Nepal is male-dominated, with women accounting for around 10 per cent of Nepal's total labour migration force, there is a rising need for stories of female migrant workers to be explored. Women's stories need to be heard, not just from the perspective of a wife, mother, and daughter dependent on a migrant worker but also from a female migrant worker's perspective. It is crucial for women's migration history and stories to be included to ensure equity, equal recognition, and equal representation. With the growing interest in foreign employment in Nepal, there has been a spike in research by concerned authorities, including the Government of Nepal (GoN). However, the stories and experiences of Women Migrant Workers (WMW) are not reflected in the labour migration policies of Nepal, even obstructing accurate data collection of women migrant workers.
The state’s control over women's mobility has a long history in Nepal. Government restrictions on women's mobility started in 1985 when women had to get consent from their guardians before leaving the country. The Government of Nepal has further implemented restrictions like sectoral restrictions, country-specific restrictions, age bans, and total bans throughout. These policies are protective and patriarchal. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, a proposed law by the Department of Immigration to ban women under 40 from travelling abroad without their families and local government officials' permission was criticised by women across the country. Hundreds of Nepali women screamed, "My vagina will vote you out," warning the men in power to protest against the proposed law. The fear of the Nepali government controlling the women’s movement led hundreds to be out in the streets, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government of Nepal has proposed the same anti-trafficking "solution" restricting women's mobility for almost half a century, which is reflective of the deep-rooted patriarchy in Nepal. My pride as a Nepali woman was shattered because my government failed me. I felt shackled even though I was miles away from the nation when all I could do was express my frustration through social media. The disrespect and disappointment I felt still has not left my heart. Such proposals do not just hurt hearts but lead to millions of women constantly draining financially, mentally, and even physically.
I am aware that women in labour migration are vulnerable to trafficking as I critique our government’s "anti-trafficking" solutions. Nepali women have a painful history of being lied to, exploited, abused, and forced into unpaid labour and sex work. However, the one-sided narrative of being trafficked and portraying all women as victims or possible victims and criminalizing solely the "traffickers" (often the local agents or manpower companies) is harmful; as this assertion constructs “gendered bodies” that characterize women migrant workers as victims, passive and lacking agency. Such narratives further blind us from understanding the gender aspect of labour migration and the role of governments and nations and put the entire blame on migrant women and local agents who are forced to choose illegal routes for their livelihood.
Sharada Rai, a single mother from Morang, was one of the first few women from her village who broke the shackles and decided to leave for labour migration in the early 2000s. Very aware of the consequences of possible stigma, Sharada took agency and moved across continents to feed her child and to build their future. She did not have government approval while travelling to Kuwait for domestic work. So, she travelled by train to India to go to Kuwait with other women from across Nepal, each with their reasons for migration.
Sharing her migration journey, Sharada narrated how the 3-day-long train trip was one of her life's unforgettable and distressing experiences. However, it was very easy for a government official I interacted with to shame women for using chhor bato (thieves route). The National Human Rights Commission of Nepal's Annual Report 2021-22 even blatantly blames people who go for foreign employment illegally through clandestine routes and without documentation for getting trafficked. There is no accountability by the government for perpetuating an environment that encourages people to choose the risky path.
Sharada chose to migrate as a labourer to fulfil her economic aspirations. But she didn’t choose to travel illegally. She was forced to take the illegal route because of her village's restrictive government policies and lack of alternatives. Her socio-economic condition, the stigma and limitations of being a single mother in a patriarchal Nepali society, and the lack of employment opportunities in her village forced her to go to Kuwait despite what the government had allowed. While government officials think they are protecting and saving women like Sharada through their bans, women are in a much more vulnerable position with no recognition or support from the government in the destination country.
Nepali women's right to mobility and decent work has been snatched away by the government dominated by men. Restriction in women's mobility further stigmatizes their migration, confines women within traditional gender roles, obstructs them from escaping adverse situations like poverty and domestic violence, and forces them to take illegal routes, furthering their vulnerability to risk, abuse, and exploitation. The blanket approach to anti-trafficking by the government of Nepal generalises and victimises every Nepali woman, thus overtly simplifying the complex issue of labour migration. As a woman on the move with a ton to say, I call it a lazy approach that paints a single-sided portrayal of women as victims and dismisses women's ability and agency to decide for themselves.
Even when women like Sharada make it out of the country hoping to change their future, the lack of government support makes women migrant workers in the foreign land even more vulnerable. The lack of government documentation of women migrant workers who choose the illegal migration route silences their experiences and isolates them from getting government support. Worse, government officials have been found guilty of taking advantage of women migrant workers returning from foreign employment, including fraud and sexual abuse.
The discriminatory nature of labour migration is not limited to just mobility and borders; the airports, train stations, and migration routes. It extends beyond the labour market and the workplace and even affects the reintegration of women migrant workers upon their return. The board at the migration information centres in Morang and Udayapur informing of available free skill training for women and men labour migrants depicts the biased labour market for migrant workers based on gender. The free pre-departure skill training for women is limited to the garment machine operator and house-keeper; however, for men, it included skill training for occupations like shuttering carpentry, scaffolding, plumber, industrial electrician, masonry, kitchen helper, welding, sandblasting, spray painting, and steel fixture.
Despite the restrictions and limited government support, women migrant workers from South Asian countries like Nepal usually move abroad for care work as domestic workers, given the demand from destination countries. The prejudiced nature of care work can be understood by analyzing the gender aspect of "transnational reproductive labour," described by Pettman and Hall for women travelling internationally for care work. While women from richer destination countries move from households to the public sphere or the "productive" sphere as skilled manpower, women from poorer countries are imported to replace the "reproductive" labour in the private sphere, in short, to do household chores. Why is it that only a woman is deemed fit for domestic work or the care sector?
"My (female) employer used to work at a hospital in Qatar. I had to do all the household chores when she was gone, including looking after the kids. I got paid low for my work and barely got any leave. It is tough for women to work as domestic workers as they have to suffer through wage theft, torture, and getting falsely accused of stealing and other wrongdoings," Asha Dahal, 38, from Udayapur, recalled her experience in Qatar as a domestic helper in 2013. Asha, who went to work as a cleaner for a company, later found out that the company had sold her to a domestic work employer to work in a private house. Asha left Qatar three months after she did not like her wages and her working conditions.
When women in destination countries like Asha’s employer are working out of the house, Nepali women like Asha are confined to the four walls of a private home with no regulations protecting them, or support from the home country. The private nature of care work makes it precarious for women migrant workers, and the lack of the government's recognition of domestic work as foreign employment puts women in a vulnerable position due to lack of proper documentation. Further, it limits the women to reach out to embassies as they fear punitive actions against them. Many women, thus, end up returning with loans and traumatic experiences. One would think women migrant workers will have it easy after they return home. Still, as research shows, returnee women migrant workers (RWMW) face a huge issue of stigmatisation upon their return. The one-sided outlook on women's labour migration as trafficking has led to stigmatising returnees by alleging them of selling their bodies instead of selling their labour in a foreign land.
Talking to returnee migrant women, community leaders, and counsellors working in support of RWMWs, I got a deeper insight into the stigmas that RWMWs go through. Like other RWMWs, Sharada expressed her disappointment, explaining, "If a woman migrates for labour migration, she is accused of selling her body instead of her labour, especially in rural places. Such a perspective needs to be changed." Men labour migrants, on the other hand, did not have such experience to share when I asked them about any stigmas they faced. They were not even aware of women's experiences of society questioning their characters. Women migrant workers, whether involved in sex work or not, do not deserve to be scrutinised by the community and talked negatively about their character behind their backs. While social stigma against returnee women has decreased in recent years due to increasing awareness, it still exists. There was not a single returnee woman who shared a different experience.
Sharada further described the discrimination she felt as a domestic worker labour migrant as she did not witness such an outlook for women who go out to study in Western or European countries. “The outlook, the value, and the dignity are different. We (labour migrants) deserve an environment where we can come back and reintegrate into the community," persisted Sharada, who was accused of contracting HIV when she returned to Nepal in 2015. Although, as a woman on the move, I share one similar experience of seeing the landscape of Nepal getting farther and smaller from the window of a plane, I could never compare my migration journey with the labour migrants of Nepal.
Like every other Nepali from a low-income or middle-class family, labour migration has also been inseparable from my life. It has touched my life through the cousin sister who escaped gender-based violence by moving continents, the friends whose parents took the courage to leave their small kids behind, hoping for a better future, and the neighbour who migrated to be the family's breadwinner. This is true for countless Nepalis even today. As the influence of labour migration in Nepali society is increasing, there is a need for the gendered nature of labour migration to be questioned so that an inclusive environment for women migrant workers is provided.
The one-sided narrative in labour migration in Nepal has put thousands of women at further risk. Nepal's protective laws restricting women to “protect” them from exploitation and trafficking have worsened the situation. Until there is a substantial change in the outlook on women migrant workers by the community and government officials, the gendered nature of labour migration will keep excluding and silencing thousands of women.
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About the writer:
Born and raised in Kathmandu, Puja is an enthusiastic learner. She finds meaning and joy in engaging in deep conversations with people and immersing herself in new cultures. With a passion for storytelling, Puja uses mediums like photography, writing, and painting to tell stories. Currently, based in the New York metropolitan area, she is pursuing her Master's in International Relations and is curious to understand how global movements are gendered.