Female Migrant Workers of Nepal

Many Nepali women are becoming sole breadwinners for their families with 2.5 million of them employed as migrant workers overseas. Most of these female domestic workers migrate to the Middle-eastern countries, to countries in South East Asia, and East Asia, out of which the largest domestic migrant labour receiving countries are Malaysia (40.9%) and Saudi Arabia (22.3%). Among the 2.5m domestic workers, 90% are considered to be undocumented migrants (HRW report 2018 and Nepal Labour Migration Report).

Once rated as one of the poor countries in the world, Nepal was able to reduce the percentage of people living below the international poverty line (people earning less than US$1.25 per day) during the past years (World Bank: Nepal – Country Overview). But the country’s economy is still unstable, with its growth negatively influenced by politics.

Due to this, many Nepalese who were surviving through agriculture which employs 76% of the country’s workforce, have begun to find other options for better earnings. Earlier, men travelled abroad to seek jobs, while women stuck to their reproductive roles. Yet, today foreign currency has become a factor of attraction to these poor who live with bare economic means; and believing that the pastures across borders are greener, women too have begun migrating.

The recent years have created an increase in the female migrant population, with large numbers of women migrating as domestic workers mostly to the Gulf. Roughly half a million of women from Nepal seek jobs overseas annually contributing high annual revenue to the country.

But these female workers pay a high sacrificial price in their workplaces. Thousands of them face numerous harassment and violations. Overloaded work, depression, unrest during transition, isolation, homesickness, fear, and language barriers are some of the common problems for all female domestic workers. Many hundreds of them encounter other kinds of abuses and exploitation; long work hours, beatings, torture, physical; violence, sexual abuse, rape, honour killings and murder.

In 2010, 15 female migrants of Nepal, working in Lebanon, committed suicide due to extreme sufferings (Nepali Times 2010); and the figures that go unregistered is believed to be more. A number of reported cases of violence have been looked into by the Nepali Embassies in their respective countries, and the women had been returned back to Nepal. Sometimes women are sent back by their employers due to serious health conditions; some in wheel chairs or stretchers, while many arrive dead lying inside cheap coffins. And there are also few who never get to see their homeland again.

Still, witnessing of these extreme risks has not stopped women from leaving to overseas as domestic workers.

Reshma (not her real name) a young woman, from the rural of Nepal explains why she left to the Gulf as a domestic worker. “I had always wanted a comfortable life; but my poor parents could not afford to give me the things I desired. One day I heard about a distant relative aunt, who had bought a new home. I learnt that both their son and daughter were working abroad. So I visited this house. I saw they had a television; but it was the grinder that caught my eye. At home I had to grind on the stone; it was so hard. I too wanted a grinder. I wanted to get a water pump, so I didn’t have to walk far to fetch water. I thought I could buy jewellery like my aunt’s for my mom. It was after I arrived in the Gulf that I realized the dark side of migrant labour – especially for women. I was sexually abused several times by my employer and his friends. I had no choice than tolerating while holding on to my dreams. And after a year it was too much to bear. So I escaped from the house and with help from the Embassy returned home with a mere earning in my hand. I lost everything; and my character is tarnished now. I have to use the stone again for grinding lentils.”

Every person wishes for a life that is complete with no sufferings. But many in the world are poor and they pass each day of their lives with a basic need being unmet. Most of the poor people’s rights are violated and they become so vulnerable that they opt to take high risks, with the hope of a positive future. These women of Nepal desire to lead a happy comfortable life. They do not wish for luxuries, but to be able to have their basic social and economic needs. And this vulnerable situation urges the women to take up jobs in strange lands, unknowing of the awaiting threats therein.

Female migrant workers are confronted with severe health risks at different levels. Most women who migrate are of the ages between 14 and 51; the ages where women get introduced to diverse health factors at different stages of their lives. Common health issues faced by these women are due to over working: fever, accidents, severe pains, etc. Illness also occurs due to the hot temperature in these Middle Eastern countries, as Nepalese are accustomed to cooler temperatures.

Domestic work involves various kinds of hazards and accidents. Female migrants, who come from the rural areas of Nepal, are not familiar with modern equipment and accessories in a new environment. They also suffer due to language barrier and communication. Most of these women do not speak English. Other factors that add to the negatives of their condition are the culture and food pattern. Nepal, though declared as a secular state by the interim Constitution, after the abolition of the monarchy in 2006, has a majority of population that practice Hinduism. Thus Islam becomes one of the minority religions in the country with just 4.4% Muslims practicing it. Most females who migrate as workers are Hindus and they find it hard to cope with the cultural and religious practices in the Gulf countries. This situation leads to anxieties and creates mental traumatization. Psychologically affected female workers sometimes try to harm themselves, and many have returned back to their motherland unable to lead a life of normalcy.

Overloaded and heavy activities in the workplaces also hurt the wombs of these female workers, where the wombs begin to slip off – ‘uterine prolapse’. This is a severe condition which makes the pelvic floor muscles and ligaments stretch and weaken and no longer provide enough support for the uterus, leading to many other complications in the health system of a woman. Non-affordability and poor nutrition adds to this negatively. When these return to their home country, they begin to seek medical support, and many of the women end up removing their wombs. Removal of wombs is also complicated, and there are negative after-effects connected to it, which minimizes the positive-health of women.

I had no choice but to remove my womb. But I am still young, and I cannot have more children. My in-laws are angry with me now, as they were against my surgery. Yet, I am lucky to have an understanding husband. But many women who have womb problems are forced to bear babies, and they face high life threats”, explains Devi [not her real name], a mother of two girls, who had been employed as a migrant domestic worker in the Middle-East for two years. Devi returned to Nepal after she fell ill, with the heavy work load tasked on her by the employer.

Migrant workers also get exposed to several infectious diseases in their host countries. Vector-borne infections [dengue, malaria], food-borne infections, and infections by close contact with another [tuberculosis and HIV], affect female migrants. Spreadable diseases through sexual transmission not only affect the physical health of women, but  traumatizes them to the extent that makes the workers end their lives. In a conservative country like Nepal, a woman being affected by sex related illnesses is humiliation to the person and all her family members. Due to low literacy level, and less awareness on these kinds of diseases, the female migrant workers suffer a lot first in their workplaces, and thereafter in their domestic countries after return.

Even though migration has opened ways for females to earn a better living, it has contributed to new emerging problems with high risks. The damage caused for these female migrant workers cannot be reversed or rectified as most of them are severe.

Labour migration mainly affects the health of the migrants. And the situation worsens when the migrant workers are females.

A country’s obligation is to protect its citizens. Yet most developing countries today fail to do so. Nepal which is in its early stages of socio – economic development still lacks the capability to protect its female migrant workers from harassment, violence and death.Dhriti Adhikari  | Nepal