After a string of news reports on the exploitation and the great hardships of Nepali women domestic workers (housemaids) in the Gulf countries, the government started restricting the movement of Nepali women into the Gulf from early 2009. But implementing such a restriction was always going to be tricky as of every 100 Nepalis who enter the workforce each year, 75 leave for abroad, with women comprising a bigger and bigger share of this figure each passing year. Despite the risks involved, many Nepali women continue to be lured by lucrative Gulf destinations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The state has long been in a fix. Does it have the right to curtail the voluntary movement of women? (The 2007 Foreign Employment Act forbids gender-based discrimination against women who want to work abroad.) If not, would it not be a better option to better regulate women migration to the Gulf rather than cut it out outright, which, as is proving to be the case, is a near- impossible task? Despite government restrictions, Nepali women continue to go to the Gulf, mostly through Indian backchannels. Although just 23,000 women are registered with the government as working in the Gulf, unofficial estimates put the number at closer to 200,000. It is thus clear that that the number of undocumented women migrant workers (WMWs) has increased tremendously which makes any kind of oversight on them very difficult.

Now the government has once again opened the doors for WMWs wanting to work in Gulf countries as housemaids. This, it hopes, will curtail women trafficking, check the undocumented movement of WMWs and make foreign employment safer for them. The government will reportedly institute new ‘benchmarks’ for better regulation of movement (and greater safety) of WMWs. For this, it will have to work in close concert with the respective Gulf countries. Documentation will certainly help in cases of exploitation of workers, many of which end tragically: 15 Nepali women committed suicide in Lebanon last year. Hundreds more ran away from their adopted homes and seek shelter with local Nepali embassies.

Earlier this year, a Nepali woman who had been raped while working as a domestic helper for a Lebanese family was provided US $15,000 in legal settlement. But the cases of redress are few and far between. As most of them have no legal documents, they face immense hurdles in bringing the cases of abuse to light and in prosecuting the culprits. This situation will now, hopefully, change. But our hope is mixed with caution. What seems to have happened now is that the government has opened up migration of women to Gulf destinations partly as a result of the great pressure of women’s rights activists for equal treatment of male and female migrant workers. But unless the ‘safeguards’ to prevent women’s exploitation in the Gulf, and how the government plans to implement them, are clear, Nepali women working abroad will continue to be unsafe.

Source: The Kathmandu Post – 08.12.2010