Nepal must help to protect women working in the Gulf
Last week's move by the government of Nepal to lift the ban on women working in Gulf states was an important decision that will help to protect the country's most vulnerable workers.
While Nepalese women have long defied the ban, setting a process for those seeking employment in the UAE and elsewhere in the region should help reduce incidents of mistreatment and abuse.
But as many women who have worked in the Gulf know, the challenge for Kathmandu will be ensuring that these new rules are followed with adequate resources and enforcement.
Laxmi Bhatta knows too well how difficult this will be. In mid-2009, Ms Bhatta moved to Kuwait to work as a housekeeper. She intended to stay for years. Instead, she lasted just three months. "My owner used to hammer my boot every day," she told me recently. "I was treated like a beast there."
Ms Bhatta, 32, is not alone in her fate. Pourakhi-Nepal, a Kathmandu-based NGO that advocates for the rights of female migrant workers, says many Nepali women who head to the Gulf have returned home after being abused.
The blame has long fallen on the host countries. Gulf states' sponsorship systems, for instance, have been criticised and human rights groups have raised alarm bells about illegal trafficking rings in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.
These are important issues and must be addressed. But nations sending workers abroad also have a responsibility for their citizens. In Nepal's case, this responsibility has been overlooked for too long.
Government officials in Nepal admit these incidents are occurring at an alarming rate, due in part to poor job prospects at home, and a documentation and registration system that is in desperate need of an overhaul. This is what the new rule aims to address.
Yet despite the government's best intentions, increasing oversight will not be easy.
More than 90 per cent of Nepalese women who head overseas for work travel first to India, which diminishes Kathmandu's ability to track them. Nepal's government officials have asked India to stop women travelling to Gulf countries via India, but New Delhi can only do so much. When efforts are made to provide more oversight in one city, employees, and the illegal brokers that facilitate their work opportunities abroad, move elsewhere.
"Brokers are now using Mumbai, Chennai, and other Indian cities to send them to the Gulf," a senior Nepalese government official told me. Nepal shares an open border with India and crossing from either side does not require a visa.
Leaders in Kathmandu have sought to close these loopholes. To curb cases of abuse, women wishing to work abroad must now receive prior approval from the department of labour. There are also efforts to enforce mandatory registration and documentation programmes at Nepal's missions in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE.
These are important steps. But more needs to be done, and urgently. A recent study by Maiti Nepal, a non-governmental agency working for the rights of Nepal's female workforce, concluded that many women who have returned from work in a Gulf country are diagnosed with various mental disorders.
According to the available data, only 33 per cent of the women in the study returned healthy from Gulf countries. Of the 67 per cent who had medical problems, 57 per cent were diagnosed with some kind of psychiatric illness.
The challenge is massive. Nepal's envoy to Kuwait, Madhuvan Poudel, said that although there are an estimated 32,000 Nepalese women currently working in Kuwait, only 600 are registered with the mission. "We do not have any record on the number of Nepalese nationals working in the Gulf and other countries," he said. "We have neither gender nor sector breakdowns of the workers."
It is understandable that Nepal's female workforce would search for job opportunities abroad. What is not clear is why Nepal's government institutions have so far been unable to provide even basic levels of protection for citizens abroad. Rules announced last week are a good start, but while Kathmandu should be lauded for acknowledging the problems, it must not rest until every female worker is accounted for.
Reforms that track and process Nepalese women working in the Gulf are a step in that direction. Unfortunately, they come too late for women like Ms Bhatta.
During her stay in Kuwait, she says she was "denied access to food" and forced to scavenge for leftovers. And she'll never forget her frequent beatings. The wounds on her legs and hands serve as a daily reminder of her tough life as a guest worker. They should also be seen as a reminder of the hard work Nepal still has to do to protect others like her.
Anil Giri is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu.
Published: December 16, 2010 04:00 AM