Amita* knew she had to escape. After five months of being assaulted, starved and being forced to work for 20 hours a day as a domestic maid in a suburban house in Kuwait, the 45-year old from Nepal seized her chance. While the household slept, she climbed out of a downstairs bathroom window and fled.
Amita managed to find the Nepali embassy, hoping that staff there would assure her safety and help send her home to Kathmandu.
“They said there were many ladies like me who had left their employer’s house and they are reluctant to pay [for a plane ticket],” she says. “Instead, they told me to go to jail.”
Staff advised Amita that her only option was to surrender to the police for absconding from her employment contract. After serving an 11-day prison term, she finally got her flight: the authorities deported her at the Kuwaiti government’s expense.
All Gulf countries employ migrant domestic workers under the “Kafala” system, where their mobility is controlled by their employer, who hold their passport and legal control over their ability to change employment or leave the country.
But while this system is problematic, a policy introduced by the Nepali government in 2017 has compounded issues faced by Nepali migrant women.
Protection or discrimination?
Under pressure to take action to protect workers travelling abroad for employment, the Nepali government issued an order banning Nepali citizens from travelling to the Gulf for jobs as domestic workers.
“[The 2017] ban on Nepalese citizens to work as domestic workers in the Gulf, particularly the females, is solely to protect [them from] illegal trafficking and violence,” a spokesperson from the Nepalese labour department told the Guardian. “Regarding the assistance of those citizens … [the] government is very concerned regarding their safety and [to] surely help them return back. However, at times there may be some delay to manage the legal procedures.”
But activists refute this. They say that far from protecting Nepali domestic workers from exploitation and abuse, the embargo discriminates against women – and indeed actively endangers them – as the main group seeking domestic work.
A third of Nepalis are estimated to live on incomes of $3 a day (£2.30) or less, making Nepal one of the world’s poorest countries. For Nepali women desperate to earn, the Gulf remains a favourite destination for jobs, where salaries for domestic workers can be around $400 per month.
The ban has not stopped women from seeking work in the Gulf, but means travelling there directly from Nepal is no longer an option. Women resort to travelling through neighbouring countries such as India before making their onward journey.
This means that even before they reach their destination, Nepali migrant women are a target for trafficking and exploitation from groups posing as recruitment agencies, who may sell them to another party, or lie to them about the type of work will be undertaking.
“Most Nepali women are not documented [by the Nepali government] when they migrate and they become very vulnerable,” says Manju Gurung, director of Pourakhi, a migrant rights NGO and shelter in Kathmandu. “Due to this, women are paid less, or not paid. Their passports are often confiscated by their employer. They also face lots of physical abuse, sexual exploitation. They are modern day slaves.”
By contrast, the majority of male Nepalis who migrate to the Gulf work as labourers. As such, they are entitled to greater consular protection, including repatriation and subsidies if they become ill.
Without such protections, female domestic workers often have to rely on funding from non-government organisations if they are abused by their employer or face other hardships.
Vulnerable and exploited
Female migrant workers’ precarious immigration status also leaves them susceptible to further exploitation.
Sushanti*, 33, left Nepal for Dubai three years ago to work as a cleaner. Last year, she became pregnant, and when the father found out he abandoned her. In the United Arab Emirates sex outside of marriage is illegal and punishable by up to a year in jail. She concealed her pregnancy for six months and kept working until she could no longer hide it.
Sushanti knew she couldn’t ask the Nepalese authorities for help, and got a loan to pay for her flight to Kathmandu.
But Sushanti’s problems did not end with her return to Nepal. Too frightened to return to her family unmarried and pregnant, she now lives in a shelter with her newborn daughter and is faced with a new set of challenges.
Nepal’s citizenship laws state that children with foreign fathers cannot have their births registered in the country. This means the children of migrant workers are often stateless, leaving them stigmatised, and unable to access education beyond primary school level. As adults, these stateless children are not legally able to work or apply for passports. Because of this, some women feel they have to give their children to an orphanage in the hope they will be adopted, becoming documented citizens in the process.
“It is challenging for the women to go back to their communities with these babies. Sometimes women give their children to the orphanage and they re-migrate because they cannot go back to their community, as the family members won’t accept them,” says Gurung. “And the migration cycle begins again.”
Sushanti is preparing to leave her daughter in Nepal and travel once more for work.
“My family in Nepal is very strict, I cannot tell them this situation. I have a little girl but now I am going back to Dubai,” she says. “I have to earn a salary. Who will give me money if I don’t go back?”
*Names have been changed to protect identities