In 27 April 2018, I reported from Lebanon on Nepali domestic workers who were desperate to come home to visit family. They were afraid the ban on female household workers would mean they would not be able to return to their jobs. We got insights from Lebanese employers who described their relationship with their Nepali employees who after years, had become like family.
In 2019, Nepali Times reported on the government decision to allow current domestic workers abroad to visit family members and return to their jobs, a welcome move as it was right before Dasain.
In the 16 September 2020 issue of this paper, Marty Logan and I reported on Lilamaya Dhimal, a Nepali woman who was rescued from Saudi Arabia after 12 years of abuse by her employer. It was a combination of luck and proactive embassy support that rescued her from an employer she described as a “monster”.
It was also a year when the pandemic revealed pre-existing fault lines of a ‘protection’-oriented migration policy as women, especially those who had bypassed the ban, were disproportionately impacted while abroad and during repatriation.
It is 2021. The year began with a controversial proposal by the Immigration Department to required women below 40 to have written permission from male members of the family and ward officials before she can travel. News of the proposal sparked outrage, and street protests. In my report on the issue in the 11 February edition of Nepali Times I traced the history of restrictive immigration policies and reported on the protests by frustrated Nepalis resisting such patriarchal laws.
In the story, women reported feeling harassed by the Immigration Officials with or without the ban or the restrictions, just like it was reported in the very first edition of this paper in 21 years ago.
We are back to square one. Or perhaps we never left.
To be sure, the stories of abuse have also persisted and trafficking under the guise of foreign employment is rampant. It is necessary to strengthen anti-trafficking laws, including amendment to laws as per the Palermo Protocol that Nepal ratified last year.
But it is also important to allow safe employment opportunities for women via legal channels. The causes of poverty and desperation run deep, and the restrictive rules, even if well-intentioned, are counterproductive because they have only made the roles of agents and their services more relevant. In many cases where the woman is not abused during the journey, or lands a good employer, the agent is viewed as a hero, a facilitator, and not a criminal.
Even as the government proposed restrictions on visit visas for women flying to the Gulf and African countries, came news of 26 young women languishing in jails in Sri Lanka. They were headed to the Gulf via India. Recruiting agents are creative and stay one step ahead of new rules, finding increasingly circuitous routes. Since Nepali women who travelled overland to India were stopped from flying from New Delhi and Mumbai to the Gulf, they started taking them to Colombo.
The impact of the pandemic on Nepali families, and the rising demand in the care economy abroad, means greater push factors. Interceptions viewed as a success by the government are often seen as just ‘bad luck’ by migrants. This small selection of Nepali Times reports from the past 20 years shows that there needs to be an honest evaluation of the unintended, but anticipated, consequences of policies restricting travel for women.
On International Women’s Day on 8 March, there will be many references to women holding up half the sky. However, rules that clip the wings of women have thwarted a more vibrant discourse on unleashing the full potential of Nepali women in nation building.
How can we deliberate on labour agreements, skills training, stronger worker provisions, better financed and staffed Nepali embassies, and rewarding alternates at home and abroad, when the fundamental right to movement sucks up all the attention?
Upasana Khadka writes this column Labour Mobility every month in Nepali Times analysing trends affecting Nepal’s workers abroad. The selected content in this article can be accessed through the site search function on https://www.nepalitimes.com/.