Traditionally, Nepali women working abroad have had it tough. This was perhaps most egregiously illustrated by the case of Kani Sherpa, a Nepali woman forced into a suicide after her Kuwaiti employers subjected her to repeated physical and mental torture. When her case came to light in 1998, Nepal government succumbed to public pressure and banned women from working in the Middle East. The ban was lifted in 2010 as in the absence of gainful employment opportunities at home, more and more women started expressing their wish to work abroad.
But even as news of women’s exploitation in the Gulf countries continue to pour in, the number of Nepali women seeking employment opportunities there continues to increase: In 2011-2012, 22,655 Nepali women received permission from the Department of Foreign Employment for overseas jobs; compared to 10,416 in 2010-2011. Yes, the number of women going abroad through proper legal channel has increased since 2010, but their plight in labor-recipient countries remains as dismal. Only 33 percent of women who go to work in the Gulf return home healthy; 57 percent return with some kind of psychiatric illness. The government has, to its credit, instituted measures to keep track of Nepali women in the Gulf to be able to better protect them from exploitation and abuse. But this is easier said than done.
A large proportion (the estimate varies from 50 to 90 percent) of women continue to go to Gulf countries through India, which makes tracking them devilishly difficult. For instance, of the nearly 35,000 Nepali women working in Kuwait, not even a thousand are registered with the Nepali mission there. Other stats on Nepali women working abroad are shocking. According to another estimate, of the estimated 2.3 million Nepali women working abroad, as much as 90 percent may be victims of some form of sexual violence. Nor are the most of them liable to promised salary and living conditions.
Not that there are no legal measures to protect migrant workers, including women, in place. The Foreign Employment Act (2007) requires recruitment agencies to provide migrant workers with a copy of their contract in advance and guards against exorbitant charges for recruitment services. It also allows for punishment of recruitment agents that fail to abide by terms of contract. But a 2011 Amnesty International research found evidence of violations of the law by recruitment agencies, including failure to provide contracts, changing terms and conditions and overcharging for services. The same report points out how women are doubly disadvantaged as they also have to battle “intermittent bans on domestic work and a requirement to seek family permission prior to migrating,” which “force women to migrate through irregular channels or become ‘undocumented’”.
There are thus rooms for improvement on multiple fronts. One, the Nepali missions in the Gulf can be better-equipped, both in terms of manpower and financial resources, to handle the problems of women migrant workers and ensure their proper documentation. Two, pre-departure orientation that instructs likely migrants, especially women, on working conditions and individual characteristics of labor-receiving countries must be made mandatory for all departing migrant workers. Three, there should be greater effort to bring to book the recruiters who are found to be violating the country’s laws on migration. This is the least the country could do for its migrant workers who have steered the national economy through some very tough times