No country for women

  • Despite a ban, women migrant workers come back from the Gulf in the thousands with harrowing tales of economic and physical exploitation
- Roshan Sedhai
No country for women

Jan 8, 2015-

This story could have had a happy ending: a proud single mother braving the odds, toiling under the heat in Saudi Arabia for a brighter future for herself and her son. It, however, was not to be. Shova Pariyar was beheaded last August by the Saudi government after a local court found her guilty of murder.

Case in point

Shova, a resident of Bhimad-5 in Tanahun, had allegedly confessed to killing her employer’s two-year-old child in retaliation for her landlady’s abuse. But there is enough room to question the fairness of the trial. Amnesty International, describing the justice process in Saudi Arabia, says, “Defendants are rarely allowed formal representation by a lawyer,” in cases where the death penalty is possible.

All the while, the poor Pariyar family attempted to fight for Shova on their own, only to see her get executed. The powerful in Singha Durbar, who never tire of harping on about the contribution of the remittance to the national economy, were surprisingly unaware of Shova’s plight. The elites of Kathmandu were too busy writing lucrative reports and preparing presentations on women’s rights to speak out.

Saudi Arabia has beheaded dozens of foreign maids like Shova in the past, but 32-year-old Shova became the only maid to be executed in recent years without the slightest resistance from her country of origin or rights group. When Saudi Arabia secretly executed Ruyati Binti Saputi, a 54-year-old Indonesian woman in June 2011, her compatriots and government came to her support. The Indonesian government  imposed a subsequent ban on female job migrants to the Gulf kingdom. The world’s biggest Muslim nation is determined not to lift the ban unless Saudi authorities agree to an unequivocal pledge to protect and promote migrant rights.

Sri Lanka has imposed a similar ban on its maids to work in Saudi Arabia since January 2013, following the beheading of Rizana Nafeek despite the island nation’s relentless diplomatic pursuits to save her life since 2005. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself had made personal appeals for clemency in her case.

In sharp contrast, Nepal neither wrote any official appeal for clemency nor did the prime minister condemn her execution, despite the fact that Nepal does not allow capital punishment. But the biggest irony was that Nepal’s Labour Minister was making an offer of ‘cheaper’ maids to his Saudi counterpart, while the powerless Shova was languishing.

Paying bigger prices

Overseas employment has undoubtedly transformed the lives of many Nepali women. It has played a constructive role in bridging gender and socio-economic gaps by promoting independent values in women. On a larger scale, female migrants contribute an estimated 11 percent to the total remittance Nepal receives. As a result, their kids are getting access to better education, health, and sanitation.

But it should not be forgotten that many women are paying a bigger price. Official data shows that some 1,000 Nepali women in the previous year alone have returned home to narrate poignant tales of economic exploitation and physical abuse. Some even return with children and are subjected to further abuse and discrimination in society. Even housemaids receiving the best of treatment in the Gulf are subject to overwork, confiscation of passports, and denial of promised pay, time off, or communication with family members, according to rights groups.

However, this is not the only problem female migrant workers face. These women are as much at risk in their own country as in foreign lands, due to Nepal’s failed system and oftentimes ambiguous policy on domestic migrant workers. A large section of Nepali women become victims of economic, physical, and sexual exploitation at the hands of dishonest agents, corrupt officials, and discriminatory laws, both during their departure and on arrival.   

Despite a ban, thousands of women like Shova are still leaving the country every month through the porous border with India or the Tribhuvan International Airport. It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of women working abroad, as only a small number who go through formal channels are documented. The accumulated estimation of Nepal’s missions in the Gulf show that around 350,000 Nepali women are currently working there. Nearly 70,000 are estimated to be in Saudi Arabia alone.

Many women are literally sold by recruiting agencies and agents to local brokers in the Gulf, as the former are paid in gold (a housemaid fetches as much as $2,000 in commission).

Some human traffickers even send women on industrial visas to work as housemaids using forged documents. These traffickers approach prospective candidates with free visas, tickets, citizenship certificates and passports.

Targeted interventions

If Nepal really wants to promote safe migration, it needs serious to seriously rethink its existing policies and their implementation. The restriction on the freedom of movement has never been and is unlikely to ever be a solution to the problem. The government should lift the existing ban it announced on July, the sixth provisional ban since 1990, and think of more pragmatic solutions to problems faced by Nepali female migrants.  

Nepal’s initial focus should be to sign labour pacts with work destinations, expanding well-resourced missions there, and making possible the assessment of the risks female workers face. There should be collaboration with host governments to build mechanisms to monitor the condition of workers, rescue victims, and fast track compensation to them.

In the long run, sending female workers through government-to-government channels, as is done with South Korea, Israel, and Japan could be an important step towards promoting safe migration. In the meantime, the government should allow recruiting agencies to send domestic helps only to verified employers willing to bear all costs, including the ticket. The government should be directly involved in providing training, orientation, health checkups, and monitoring of the overall recruitment process.

Non-governmental stakeholders, notably INGO and NGOs, have limited their roles to documenting the plight of female migrants and criticising the government for the travel ban on female migrants. Most find this an easy source of money, holding big seminars and producing glitzy reports, while there are few efforts to address the problem on the ground. Such practices have become widespread, as bureaucrats are rewarded with foreign visits and lucrative meetings to remain silent.

International donor and aid agencies working on migration should extend support to the ill-resourced government to combat human trafficking. Or they could even invest in decentralising training, orientation, and health check-up centres to end the current situation where a majority of workers submit fake documents during recruitment.

It is commendable that the government has finally started drafting an ‘internationally accepted’ guideline on domestic workers to safeguard their rights. But we must not miss the real point here. Mere paperwork cannot guarantee the liberty of Nepali women in countries where their own citizens are still fighting for driving and voting rights. Giving Nepali women job opportunities at home is the only real solution to all problems.

Sedhai covers migrant labour for the Post

Published: 09-01-2015 09:32

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