Women in Nepal Warn of Foreign Employment Exploitation

by Global Press Institute | Global Press Institute
Friday, 21 October 2011 10:52 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL - Sapana Bishwokarma, 26, has a young face. She looks too young to be the mother of the 2-year-old boy who plays beside her. But she is. The young mother is answerless when asked about the baby's father. She says her body trembles with fear each time she recalls her son's father. Then tears engulf her eyes and trickle down her cheeks. "I didn't know that man very well," says Bishwokarma, who requested her name be changed. "He used to rape me as many times as he wanted, any given time of the day." Bishwokarma, of Jhapa, a district in eastern Nepal, says she moved to Saudi Arabia four years ago to work as a nanny. Her eyes moist, she says that an employment agent enticed her with the prospect of a good income. She says she paid the agent 50,000 rupees, ${esc.dollar}700 USD, to secure the job for her. Because of a Nepali government ban on working in the Gulf, lifted just last year, she says she traveled first to India then to Saudi Arabia, where two men received her at the airport and took her to the house where she would work. But instead of working as a nanny as promised, Bishwokarma says she was forced to work as a maid. The situation continued to deteriorate. One month into the job, she says her employer's unmarried son raped her, with the help of three other men. "They were a family of three with a middle-aged father and two sons," she says. "I couldn't even understand their language, and I was beaten up by the men." She says the sexual abuse didn't stop there. Eventually, everyone in the family raped her. As she cuddles her son and pulls him onto her lap, she recalls a particular incident. "Once, the elder son called me in his room and asked me to sit on his bed," she says. "I refused because I was just a domestic helper there. But he forcefully pulled me to the bed, and I kept on crying for help, but no one came to my rescue. Despite using all his [force, when] he still couldn't get control over me, he hit me with a box on my head. I became unconscious." She says she thinks he raped her multiple times while she was unconscious because her health started deteriorating soon after. Bishwokarma says that in addition to using physical force, the sons also drugged her. She says that one of the employer's sons would give her food when no one was in the house. But she says that after eating it, she would become unconscious or sleepy. "I had to eat whatever they gave me because that would be the only food I got," she says. "In many instances, I would just get sleepy after eating. When I would wake up, I would find out I had been raped looking at my condition." But she says that, most of the time, the men skipped the drugs and physically tortured her before raping her. She says she eventually got pregnant, so the elder son kicked her out and sent her back to Nepal without paying her wages. "Now he sent me back to my country," she says. "If this had happened to me here, I could have gone to the police, but in his country I couldn't do so. He imprisoned me in his house and kept on raping me." She says she kept the story to herself for years and declined to use her real name because she fears that bringing her story into media spotlight might affect her future. "I'll make my son my support," she says, wiping a tear from her eyes. "At some point of time, somehow I feel that he'll take revenge for the injustice I had to face." Bishwokarma, who now earns a living as a tailor to support her son, says she doesn't recommend any women go abroad for foreign employment. "I went there to become financially independent," she says. "But for women, foreign employment isn't what you think it to be. They treat us like animals, not humans." She says she encourages women to find jobs in their own countries instead. "If you work hard enough, you can do something in your own country," she says. "So think of doing something here." Many Nepali women who leave the country for work return with stories of exploitation. As a result, some recommend working at home instead, insisting that it's more feasible than women realize. Others report having positive experiences with foreign employment, as long as women get the right job and know the language and laws before departing. The government banned women from working in the Gulf for safety reasons until last year and has established training centers to prepare migrant workers, but some say more needs to be done. Others say the answer is to strengthen women's rights at home. Traditionally, it has been rare for Nepali families to permit women to work abroad. But in the past decade, more and more women have been leaving the country for foreign employment. The foreign employment trend started with men going into the army during World War I, sociologist Kumar Yatru says. But the formal procedure of sending locals for foreign employment started in 1986, says Dinesh Hari Adhikari, Ministry of Labor and Transportation secretary. Because many women lack the proper documentation, statistics on the number who leave the country each year to work abroad range from 67,000 to 83,000 women, depending on the source. The Foreign Employment Department estimates that 2.3 million women have left Nepal for work to date. Sushil Dhungana, president of the Foreign Nepali Workers Rescue Center, a nongovernmental organization, NGO, that assists workers who have been exploited abroad, says that of the 67,000 women who went to the Middle East for employment in 2006, only 3,000 had proper documentation, which means they are the only ones who have left the country legally and can seek help from the government if necessary. As a result, he says that 90 percent of women who leave Nepal for foreign employment become victims of sexual violence. Out of 100 women who leave for foreign jobs, only five get the job and salary they were promised and 25 get something similar to it. Although 94 women present their certification of skill, only six of them get the visa according to their skills. According to Pourakhi, a local NGO for women migrant workers, there are 70,000 Nepali women working in Saudi Arabia, 30,000 in Kuwait, 14,000 in Israel and 15,000 in Lebanon. Of all the women, 80 percent end up as domestic helpers and 90 percent are without proper documentation. Manju BK, 26, says she left her 6-month-old daughter in Biratnagar, an industrial city in southeastern Nepal, to work in Kuwait via India in 2008. She says she thought she would earn substantial money to support her family by working as a housemaid or in a restaurant. "My husband was sick, and he also has hearing problems," she says. "Plus, what do I do when you got to take care of five daughters, their education and other living costs? There was no other option." But instead of earning money for her family, she says she came back with a prolapsed uterus and no money after repaying the loans she had taken out to pay the agents for arranging her employment abroad. In addition to doing household chores and serving as a nanny, she says she had to do intense physical labor, like lift a cooking gas cylinder up to the second floor of the house. She says that the labor was so strenuous that in less than six months, her body couldn't handle it. Her uterus became prolapsed - when it falls from its normal position - which doctors attributed to the stressful labor. "My uterus started coming out of my vagina," she says. "When I sit or squat now, it just pops out these days." Her husband, Netra Bahadur BK, says that when he found out about his wife's dire situation, he tried to contact the agent who had helped send her to Kuwait. But he says attempts to contact the agent were unsuccessful so he had to take matters into his own hands to bring back his wife, who had also lost her passport. "After continuous phone calls to the embassy, she was able to get her passport," her husband says. "I didn't know that the Nepal government had banned women from working in the Gulf. I heard in these countries women had to take permission from the police to talk to men other than their employers. Maybe it's for the security of the women that the government has put the ban." Still, BK, who lacks a basic education and was never able to earn much at home, says that making 11,000 rupees, ${esc.dollar}155 USD, a month was a big deal for her. She says it made her forget all the hardship she endured. "My employer gave me a six-month leave after my family called time and again," she says. "They told me to come back after my health checkup. So I'll have to decide if I want to go back again or not." But her husband says it's out of the question. "I will now never let my wife go abroad," he says. Sanam BK, a common last name in Nepal, 34, from Dharan, a city in eastern Nepal, says she also felt misled when she went to work abroad. During her first stint abroad in Kuwait, she says she was not happy with the housework she had to do. A few years after returning from Kuwait, she became a member of the Pourakhi chapter in Dharan. She says that she took a beauty course and that after doing more research, she decided to go to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where she was promised a job in a beauty parlor. "Because I had knowledge about it, I had strictly told the agent that I would only do the job I asked for or I would return," she says. "It's very important that you know the language, have the skills and be aware of legal formalities when you're going for foreign employment." But BK says she didn't receive the job at the beauty parlor. Instead, she ended up as a domestic helper. "The house I used to work [in] had 25 members," she says. "I had to cook for some 48 people every day, and that was too difficult for me." She says she repeatedly pled with her agent to get her a new job. But BK says the agent never did, so she returned to Nepal after eight months. BK, who paid the agent 50,000 rupees, ${esc.dollar}700 USD, to go to Dubai, says that women have to go through an agent in order to seek employment abroad. But she says that the jobs she received abroad weren't worth the commission she paid the agents and money she spent on the two trips. "I'm trying to open my own beauty parlor here," she says. "With the money you spend on going abroad, you might as well invest in something here and get more return." Poonam Dewan, 30, who is also from Dharan, says she went to work in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates because her husband had a job there. "I returned after seeing the state of women and how they were being treated," Dewan says. Dewan says she instead decided to open a cyber café in Dharan. She says she earns 25,000 to 30,000 rupees, ${esc.dollar}350 to ${esc.dollar}420 USD, every month. "I recommend Nepali women not to go abroad [for work]," she says. "And even if they are to go, they should possess the skills, know the language and their rights." Kamala Sinkhada, 39, of Jhapa, recently returned from working in Dubai, where she says she had a positive experience. She says she is aware of several women being sexually exploited in foreign countries, but that women can make themselves less vulnerable by knowing the language, the laws and their rights in the foreign country. She also says some jobs are more prone to sexual exploitation than others. "Such cases mostly happen when women work as domestic help or maids," she says. "I worked in a department store." She says that with a suitable job and knowledge of the country, foreign employment solves financial problems for women and also shows them that they can work abroad just as men do. "From my earnings from Dubai, I have been able to educate my children," she says. She says that her experience was so positive that she plans to find another job abroad. "I will go [to work abroad] again," she says. "My husband will take care of the children in the meantime." The Nepali government banned women from going to work in the Middle East in 1998 after the case of Kani Sherpa became public, Adhikari says. Sherpa committed suicide after her employers in Kuwait physically and mentally tortured her. The government lifted the ban last year. But even during the ban, some 20,000 women still flocked to the Middle East without any documentation every year, says Manju Gurung of Pourakhi. She says that as of 2010, 100,000 Nepali women were working abroad in the Middle East without proper documentation. She says that Nepali women are in demand because of their hardworking stature and honesty, but their lack of education makes them vulnerable to abuse and other problems. She says many have revealed that they were sexually exploited during private counseling sessions, but that most won't admit this to other people. "Nepal's labor law doesn't have any stature for domestic helpers, which makes it more difficult for women to utilize their rights," she says, referring to both domestic and migrant workers. "And it is because of the weak policies of the government that the middlemen/agents are actively engaged, making women vulnerable toward violence." Gurung says that there should be a Nepali Embassy in each foreign country where the number of Nepali women workers exceeds 5,000 and a consulate for countries with fewer women. But the lack of documentation makes it hard for the government to gauge how many women are working abroad, while the ban was only recently lifted. Yatru says that the entire process of making women aware of foreign employment issues and their rights abroad is weak. Yatru, who has been analyzing the trend of foreign employment, says that 16 percent of women who work abroad return with no income. And because they work as domestic helpers and lack legal documentation, they don't get any assistance from the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, comprised of government officials and representatives from the private sector, or the government itself. Sthaneshwor Devkota, acting president of the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, attributes the severe hardships that women face abroad to a lack of skills and education. Recalling his investigative visit to the Middle East, he says that some women were denied their salaries if they broke even a single glass by mistake. Nainkala Thapa of the National Women's Commission, an organization for women created by the government, says that because of improper or a lack of predeparture orientations and skills trainings, some women have also been the targets of human trafficking. She also says that in some countries, there have been reports of discrimination against women based on their race and skin color. The government created a mandatory training for women leaving for foreign employment and offers 700 rupees, ${esc.dollar}10 USD, as a cash incentive for its completion. But Dhungana says that women rarely register for the training because they work abroad illegally. Moreover, he says that there are 53 training centers, but that they are all clustered in Kathmandu, the capital, and are inaccessible to women in remote districts, who are the most likely to seek foreign employment. He says employment agencies cash in on this by charging women for fake training documents. Saru Joshi, regional program coordinator of U.N. Women-Nepal, says that women migrant workers have been on the rise in Nepal in recent years. But she says this hasn't increased their socio-economic standing because of a lack of rights at home. "In Nepal, women still don't have property rights," she says. "So all the money they bring back after years of hard work goes into the custody of her husband or in-laws. At the end of the day, they're always empty-handed." She says the government has created policies to ensure women have equal rights with men, but that Nepal is still a patriarchal country so cultural and social traditions have limited the policies' implementation. "Therefore, the government should have concrete policies to govern the rights of women," Joshi says.