Print Edition - 2016-08-14  |  Free the Words

The missing men

  • Migrants are tackling poverty in their own ways, but Nepal needs to generate capital within its own borders

Aug 14, 2016-

One more white, wooden coffin, another missing man of the nation. The coffins have become a common sight when a flight from the Middle East or Malaysia lands in the Tribhuvan International Airport. 

In 1990, Amartya Sen in his article, ‘More than 100 million women are missing’, compares the ratio of women to men in regions like South Asia with that in other regions such as Europe. He finds millions of women missing in Asia, especially in the South Asian society. Although the missing number of women is subject to debate, the article was groundbreaking in drawing attention to the enormously neglected problems of gender-related abortion, feticide, infanticide and discrimination, and in explaining the underlying patriarchal, cultural and economic factors that feed the problems.

There is not just a case of missing women in Nepali society but also a severe case of missing men. The difference is that these men—the majority being primary breadwinners of their households—are migrating abroad. In a nation heavily dependent on agriculture, their absence is creating extra burden for the women left behind. Traditional gender roles further constrict women’s mobility and historically lower literacy among women puts them at a great disadvantage in undertaking additional tasks.

Grappling with poverty

Migration is an effective adaptation strategy to cope with poverty and other challenges for migrants, but it comes at a cost—many men who migrate are lured by the prospects of higher earnings but are not fully aware of work conditions that have sometimes been compared to modern-day slavery. In 2014, the International Organisation for Migration reported that approximately four million Nepali migrants worked abroad, generating roughly a quarter of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Many of these men work in construction sites under abysmal conditions, which were brought to light by the construction project for the Fifa World Cup in Qatar. The outflow of Nepali citizens is a manifestation of the problems at home. Even 

though the overall rate of poverty is decreasing and health and education outcomes are improving in Nepal, it remains one of the least developed countries in the world. A deep divide between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, and the lack of domestic employment opportunities encourage people to seek opportunities abroad. 

I sat down with a staff member from a women’s empowerment fund to ask how migration is affecting women in rural areas. The worst thing, she said with a smile, was that people had not figured out how much money they were losing through the exchange rate. While the inflow of remittances can alleviate poverty in the country, only a fraction of the remittances sent home is actually received after taking into account transfer fees and exchange rates. The money is enough to satisfy immediate consumer needs and perhaps pay off loans or save a small portion. But it is barely enough to form capital that can significantly change a household’s lifestyle.

New possibilities

At the same time, the absence of men can be seen as an opportunity to advance the issue of women’s empowerment by proving that women can perform the same jobs as competently as men. Many projects in the country are already helping women and men alike. One organisation, The Mountain Institute, has hosted a Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAPs) cultivation programme since 2001. Medicinal plants grow in tougher conditions and can be planted in areas where crops cannot grow. Once villagers are trained, they are provided a packet of seeds. When the plants are ready to be sold, the farmers can keep their profits. Between 2002 and 2015, the programme has managed to train 9,707 villagers who have then trained an additional 6,801 villagers. 

Through this programme, cultivators have produced 995,910 kg of MAPs between 2012 and 2015 alone, a yield from only four districts. The total income that MAPs has generated between 2006 and 2015 is $3,263,118. The Indian and Chinese markets have a high demand for these plants. The project is helping households to remain food secure, finance the education of their children and invest in technology that will improve their yields. Even women farmers are able to earn an income comparable to that of men. 

However, limited funding is a constraining factor to its success. If more aid is directed to projects like MAPs that reach the grassroots and can be sustained without continuous intervention, Nepal’s foundations can be strengthened. The missing men are the unsung heroes of the country who are tackling poverty in their own ways. Yet for Nepal to progress, it cannot remain dependent on unsustainable foreign resources. It needs capital that can be generated within its borders because the men who are saving their households from tipping into abject poverty are essentially ‘missing’.

Shrestha is pursuing a Bachelor’s 

in political science and 

environmental studies at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, US

Published: 14-08-2016 18:05

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