A poor economy and lack of opportunities are forcing more and more Nepalese women to leave home and earn money abroad as domestic workers. Separated from their own children to take care of other women’s children in the Middle East or America, many of these women are mistreated and exploited. Aware of the risks, tens of thousands continue to leave every year.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with only $490 GDP per capita. Only recently emerged from a decade-long civil war and historically dependent on an unpredictable agricultural sector, a new source of income has recently become prominent. Remittances – money sent back by Nepalese workers abroad – comes to some $1.5 billion, representing almost a quarter of Nepal’s GDP.
Since the 1990s, in light of increased globalization, more and more women are joining the ranks of Nepalese migrant workers. Of the approximately 83,000 Nepalese women that leave the country every year to work for foreign employers, fully 90 percent are victims of exploitation or sexual violence, says a study by the Foreign Nepali Workers Rescue Center (FNWRC).
“In the absence of fruitful opportunities at home, Nepalese women are leaving to earn money abroad, most often as domestic workers,” Luna Ranjit, co-Founder and Executive Director of Adhikaar, a New York-based non-profit working to empower their community, tells MediaGlobal. “Most know about the possibilities of being exploited and mistreated, but they are dreaming about better futures for themselves and their children; leaving the country appears thus as the only solution.”
Remittances from Nepalese women constitute 11 percent of the total. However, these numbers do not take into account the massive exodus of women leaving through informal roads via border-free India and Bangladesh, especially en route of the Persian Gulf countries. This year, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment recorded only 23,000 women of the 2 million believed to be working in the region.
The phenomenon is essentially due to a 1998 ban by the Nepalese government that prevented women from migrating to Gulf countries, after a Nepalese woman had allegedly been beaten, raped, and abused by her employer in Kuwait, creating a national scandal.
But the ban proved to be ineffective. Women, desperate to find work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates, where demand for domestic workers is highest, continued to migrate in violation of the law, often with the “help” of unscrupulous recruiters.
In December 2010, the Nepalese government decided to lift the twelve-year-old ban, demanding that foreign employers would have to assure the employment ministry that they provide insurance, accommodation, security, and a basic wage before recruiting Nepalese workers.
While widespread abuse of domestic workers in the Gulf States is a well-known issue, exploitation happens everywhere, even near UN headquarters in New York City.
“We are currently treating the case of a young Nepalese girl who arrived in New York when she was 17 and started working in abusive conditions for an Indian diplomat,” Ranjit tells MediaGlobal. “For three years she wasn’t paid, she couldn’t eat properly, and was threatened to be beaten if she talked to the police. She finally escaped and came to see us to asking for help.”
The challenge is now to move the focus from individual cases that happen on a daily basis all over the world, to a more global and sustained movement for the protection of migrant domestic workers.
“Before the arrival of Nepalese women in the receiving country, and even before their departure from Nepal, we should allow them to take informed decisions,” Maria Teresa Rojas, Director of the International Migration Initiative at the Open Society Institute, tells MediaGlobal. It’s important that migrants understand the risks, the working opportunities, and their existing rights in the receiving country.
“We try to stimulate a multi-sectoral approach between governments, civil societies, and private actors for sharing information and establishing regional standards of protection. The new ILO Convention is an essential tool for that.”
In June 2011, the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the Domestic Workers Convention. This is the first instrument that officially recognizes the rights of domestic workers, one of the most vulnerable groups of workers, around 83 percent of whom are women and girls and most of them migrants. Although no country has ratified it yet, its adoption represents a victory for nannies and housekeepers worldwide.
“After decades-long advocacy, the rights of Nepalese women and other domestic workers are finally recognized,” says Ranjit. “The ILO Convention recognizes rights such as minimum wages, decent working conditions, maternity leaves, or a minimum of 24 hours weekly rest, to which other groups of workers were already entitled.”
Thousands of Nepalese women suffer abuse and humiliation abroad to provide for their families and communities. Hopefully, the new ILO standards can combine with recent efforts by the Nepal government to improve their situation.