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Nepal's bid to deter women's job migration draws fury

Lekhanath Pandey Kathmandu
February 25, 2021

The government says a new labor rule is intended to protect women from exploitation and sexual abuse. But rights activists slam it as "misguided."

A Nepali migrant worker waits for a bus home
Many Nepali women earn money abroad as domestic workersImage: Prabin Ranabat/Zuma/imago images

Nepal's government recently unveiled a measure that would require women aged under 40 to provide the consent of their families and local ward offices to travel abroad.    

Authorities justified the move by saying that it's needed to protect vulnerable Nepali women from falling victim to human trafficking.

Ramesh Kumar KC, director-general of Nepal's Department of Immigration (DOI), told DW that the rule was proposed after young, uneducated and poorer women were duped by human traffickers with promises of lucrative jobs in foreign countries. The women ended up becoming victims of sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation, he said.

"Not all women under 40 require such documents to travel abroad," Kumar said. 

"This will be applicable only to those 'vulnerable' young women who are first-time travelers and traveling alone on a visit visa to certain 'vulnerable and risky' African and Gulf countries, where work permits for Nepali women are restricted," he added.

The new life of Dalit women

'Deeply rooted patriarchal mindset'

The proposal, however, has drawn sharp criticism, particularly from women's rights activists.

Critics took to social media and the streets to vent their anger, labeling the new rules unconstitutional and an effort to infringe on women's freedom of movement and right to earn a living.

Hundreds of young girls and women staged protests at Kathmandu's famous Maitighar Mandala last week. They demonstrated against the migration proposal as well as against other forms of gender-based violence and discrimination across the country.

Women's rights activist Durga Karki said that the step reflected a "deeply rooted patriarchal mindset" in Nepal's bureaucracy.

"The government has responded to the cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of Nepali migrant women abroad by imposing one misguided rule after another — by restricting their rights to travel and earn a living," she told DW. "We can't imagine such a discriminatory policy in the 21st century."

DOI Director-General Kumar, however, said the government is facing a dilemma when it comes to immigration policy.

"If we try to tighten immigration procedures, we will face criticism that we are curtailing the rights to freedom and travel," he argued. "If we try to be liberal, we will again be blamed for helping the traffickers."

Nepal needs creative ways to tackle human trafficking

Sona Khatik, a female journalist and rights activist, raised doubts about the effectiveness of the proposed measure in tackling human trafficking.

"If young girls and women are being victimized by human traffickers, the government should bring laws to dismantle their networks," she told DW. "Poor women should not be victimized just because of the state's failure to take action against the perpetrators."

Instead of controlling women's rights to travel and earn, Khatik said, authorities should find other creative ways to deal with the problem. They could include better regulation for recruitment agencies, having women-friendly labor agreements with the governments of destination countries, and providing protection and prompt response measures when exploitation and abuses are reported, she said.

Khatik also asked why the government didn't come up with a similar measure mandating men to get approval from their families and local agencies to go abroad.

Nepali female workers face abuse and exploitation

In recent years, cases of severe abuse and exploitation abroad have put a focus on the plight of Nepali female migrant workers.

The National Human Rights Commission estimates that around 35,000 people, including 15,000 women and 5,000 girls, were trafficked in 2018.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime pointed out that most of those trafficked end up becoming victims of sexual exploitation, forced labor or even organ removal.

Since April 2017, Nepal has banned women from traveling to some Middle Eastern countries to work as domestic helps. This followed reports of widespread abuse and exploitation in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.

Calls have been growing louder for the lifting of this ban, citing various labor agreements between Nepal and the destination countries.

Economy depends on remittances

The Himalayan nation's economy heavily relies on remittances sent by migrant workers. In the fiscal year 2018-19, Nepal received a total of $8.79 billion (€7.19 billion) in remittances, accounting for over a quarter of the nation's total economic output.

The government's policies restricting female migration abroad, however, have meant that currently most labor migration from Nepal involves men.

According to the Nepal Labor Migration Report 2020, the country issued labor permits for over 3.5 million people to work abroad, but only 5% of them were to female workers.

The latest proposal affecting young women workers has been sent to the Home Ministry for approval and is expected to come into force in the coming months. DOI official Kumar said the ministry could do a further review of the proposal, given the widespread concerns expressed by various groups.