Effective policies should be created to make life easier for women migrant workers.
Foreign labour migration opened up in Nepal largely due to globalisation and economic liberalisation. It has increased severalfold in the past few years because of political instability, unemployment and lack of knowledge of alternative livelihoods. According to the Department of Foreign Employment, 3 million persons, among them 90,000 women, had migrated for foreign labour as of 2013. In fiscal 2015-16, remittance accounted for 32.1 percent of the gross domestic product; and according to the Nepal Living Standard Survey 2011, women were responsible for 11 percent of the total remittance inflow into the country.
Migrant women used to be seen as ‘modern women’ who had thrown off traditional patriarchal norms and behaviors, but changing notions of patriarchy and poverty were what broke the gender restrictions imposed upon their mobility. Foreign labour migration empowers women economically and socially which increases their self-esteem.
The remittance women send home from abroad has had a significant impact on poverty reduction and household income which has helped to improve the quality of life; but for many women, it is a forced choice. They experience greater livelihood insecurity and economic crisis due to the feminisation of poverty and choose foreign labour migration. This means women often lack capital (financial, human, natural and social capital) due to their socio-cultural status which makes them vulnerable; and they often choose foreign labour migration.
Foreign labour migration is difficult for both men and women, but women encounter additional risks and discrimination in the overall migration cycle. The Foreign Employment Policy 2012 has incorporated women’s concerns and security in its objectives, but it has failed in the implementation part. Women still face lots of obstacles during migration, some severe in nature and against their human rights. The Nepal government forbade women labour migrants from going to the Gulf countries to work as domestic help, but this has only opened up more illegal routes. Studies show that 90 percent of Nepali migrant women are undocumented. Women choose illegal channels because they don’t have access to resources and lack administrative knowledge. This makes them more vulnerable in foreign lands.
Illegal routes have increased instances of trafficking. Recently, 69 trafficked women were rescued from Mizoram and 12 women from a club in Kenya. Trafficked women often get involved in the entertainment and sex industry, and are at high risk of taking ill due to sexually transmitted diseases. Health services, especially reproductive health services, and rights are invisible in foreign lands. Women migrant workers are often subjected to physical and mental violence.
There are lots of examples of murder and rape of women migrants. The women are often mistreated by the owners of the place they work in, and are also subjected to inhuman acts and barbarism. According to a statistic released in 2015 by Pourakhi, an organisation for returnee women migrants, it received 41 pregnant women and women with babies from foreign countries in three years.
Emotional problems are another traumatic experience for migrant women, especially those who go for care work. They provide care to others while living far from their own families and children.
After returning from foreign lands, they often face difficulties in reintegration and reunion with their families. Due to the years-long separation, their children cannot interact with them; and in some cases, children refused to recognise their mothers. Women migrant workers also have a hard time reintegrating due to the stigma associated with foreign labour migration as society questions their mobility and sexuality.
Also, women migrant workers get lower wages irrespective of their higher work burden. Sometimes, they return empty-handed. A majority of female migrant workers go for employment without the necessary orientation and training, which prevents them from getting proper jobs. Illiteracy and language barriers are other obstacles for them in foreign lands, but women tend to send back a higher proportion of their income even though they earn less than men.
Women migrant workers encounter a vicious chain of gender specific problems. Some of them cannot cope with these problems and commit suicide. According to a recent report of the International Labour Organisation, 24 percent of Nepali women migrant workers committed suicide in 2014-15 compared to 17 percent of men migrant workers.
Gender influences the overall migration cycle, and also the who, when, how, where and why of migration. The concerns and problems of female migrant workers are different from those of male migrant workers. For an effective solution, new plans and policies should be made, and the government should monitor the implementation part to make foreign migration safe and reliable for women. The concerns and problems of female workers should be addressed to make the overall migration cycle gender friendly.
Author: Prabha Poudyal
Photo: Pratik Gurung
This article first appeared in The Kathmandu Post on May 19, 2019.