Nepal is an incredible country with a vast cultural and historical heritage and a unique background that needs to be considered before analyzing any event. In fact, over the past three decades, it has gone through a lot of transformative processes, making the transition from an authoritarian regime to a constitutional monarchy in 1991, to then witness a pretty devastating civil war to finally see the complete removal of the monarchy itself, becoming a federal republic in 2008.
However, such a long history of hard-hand rule simply could not make democracy happen in a night. Since then, the government has been working to make the feudal system more open and inclusive and give a voice to marginalized groups. Nonetheless, Nepal’s governing bodies and legal institutions are still extremely corrupt, hierarchical, and patriarchal, and consequently, their policies cannot keep up with modern-day issues in a good way. Continuous armed conflicts, political instability, frequent changes in government, thus bringing to lousy governance, and fiscal indiscipline, have prevented the country from undergoing significant and rapid economic growth, consequently hampering its people’s financial stability. Only recently, the United Nations Committee for Development Policy recommended Nepal’s graduation from a “least developed country” (LDC) to a “developing country” by 2026, which will remove the poor country tag on Nepal and enhance the country’s prestige. However, old hierarchies continue to determine a person’s access to political and economic opportunities, especially in rural areas, which constitute most of the country. In particular, some marginalized groups, such as the lowest castes’ people and Muslims, still have considerable difficulties finding a decent job and being lifted from the poverty line and are often obliged to look for fortune abroad, often without any protection. This is significantly slowing Nepal’s rise in the world arena. It seems that Nepali people are progressing faster than the country is, voicing their discontent increasingly frequently and urging the government to remove unpopular policies that limit people’s freedoms and opportunities.
The latest example of how Nepali people are unwilling to trade their rights and dignity and refuse to accept the government’s controversial decisions comes from the recent proposal issued by Nepal’s Immigration Department, requiring women to ask permission from a family guardian and the local government to travel abroad. The Department handed over this recommendation to the Home Ministry, justifying their decision on the assumption that this measure would help to curb the trafficking of Nepali women, especially to the Gulf countries, and would also facilitate government authorities to track down these women if they have troubles abroad. Ideally, what would happen is that for a woman under the age of 40 to leave the country, a consent letter from a family member should first be written, stating that they are well informed and agree with the trip’s purpose. Furthermore, travelers will be required to purchase at least Rs 1.5 million insurance and bring with them the equivalent of Us $ 1,000 as travel expenses. According to Tek Narayan Paudel, a spokesperson with the Department of Immigration, this rule only applies to women leaving the country on a visit visa to protect them from potential abuses and trafficking. In fact, according to rulers, many times Nepali women go to the country on a visit visa but then stay abroad to work, illegally.
For many years, the government has adopted a protectionist approach, preventing Nepali women from working and living abroad, saying they will not be safe elsewhere. This ban is not the first, let alone the last, that the government has imposed to restrict women’s chances to find jobs overseas. All the restrictions that have been set since the 1980s regarding women’s departure for the Gulf have aroused criticism. Not long ago, the government had proposed another controversial measure, allowing only those citizens with a high-school diploma and able to speak English to leave the country, which was then dismissed because of the extreme unrest it caused. These measures to discourage women’s foreign employment date back to the first Foreign Employment Act in 1985, which marked the beginning of policies discriminating against people based on age and gender, allegedly to pursue their protection. These rules also ban citizens from conducting domestic work in certain countries, especially in the Gulf, where women often end up being exploited. Nepali economy heavily relies on migrant workers’ remittances, but only 10 percent of documented migrant workers are women.
More than the policy itself, what is noteworthy is the criticism and protests ignited following its proposal. In fact, an unprecedented wave of discontent inundated the country, both online and physically, in the cities. Protesters started to march in the heart of the capital demanding equality with their slogans, reiterating, once again, that women should be the ones making decisions for themselves. It also needs to be said that people, particularly women, are enraged and exasperated by the growing number of violence cases against women, which worsened during the pandemic and often go unpunished. The government’s primary focus in a delicate situation like this should be on enhancing policies and measures to prevent criminals from moving freely in the country rather than restricting women’s freedom and autonomy, hoping to reduce their chances of having trouble. Furthermore, women trafficking is only facilitated by such restrictions, which instead force women to take illegal and unsafe routes to leave the country in search of riskier, undocumented employment. This would not be necessary if they were allowed to go and work abroad freely.
Women and activists were on the frontline of these protests, but many men were also overtly against this proposal and manifested not to make the law pass. Regardless of their sex or status, everyone agreed to declare this policy unconstitutional, as the 2015 constitution guarantees equal rights to women. Furthermore, according to article 15 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Nepal has ratified, the state shall accord to women equality with men before the law. Article 15 (4) also clarifies that this equality should also concern persons’ movement and the freedom to choose their residence and domicile. Women consequently felt like the government is trying to rob women’s agency by curtailing their fundamental right to move freely and decide independently, as any human being should be able to do. Many Nepali citizens are worried about the path that the government is taking; while preaching the end of gender-based inequality and theoretically introducing measures to curb this problem, the government is actually becoming more and more restrictive, traditionalist, and patriarchal in its actions, and some women are preoccupied that it will jeopardize the progress made until now, concerning women rights, bringing Nepal one step closer to Saudi Arabia and its previous male guardianship laws.
Clearly, the Nepali government has its reasons to do that. In fact, it is true that women coming from an uneducated and poor background, mainly from rural villages, are easy prey for human trafficking and other forms of abuse and exploitation. This again highlights the integral inequalities between rural and urban women and the urgency of new policies to reduce this dangerous gap. While women living in the cities are empowered and live according to the Western standard, those residing in rural villages do not have many opportunities and usually risk more in exchange for a small sum of money. A contributing factor to this sad reality is the strong likelihood of natural disasters that Nepal is exposed to. Generally, natural disasters and the growing environmental degradation destroy people’s means of subsistence and resources, forcing women to trade sexual performances to support themselves and their families. The earthquakes of 2015 have devasted the Nepali economy and have fastened women’s and girls’ trafficking. However, is this the best way to protect those women from being trafficked? Are these bans giving the sought-after results?
Instead of stopping women from seeking jobs in the Gulf, these restrictions are only pushing them to do so illegally and less protected by finding alternative and insecure routes to get there unnoticed. There are frequent incidents of Nepali women being trafficked, not only in the Gulf but also in the countries they have to cross to get there. In fact, every year, at least 700.000 Nepali women and girls are victims of human trafficking networks, and around 200.000 women and girls currently working in Indian brothels. Maiti Nepal, a Nepali women organization, intercepted more than 36.000 women at risk of slavery around India and China’s borders. Currently, the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens is working to rescue 26 Nepali women imprisoned in Sri Lanka after being trafficked.
Furthermore, it is complicated for them to seek help in case of need, and they are not entitled to any form of compensation for sickness or injury under the government’s scheme because of their undocumented nature. Overall, while the abuse of migrant women is a problem that needs to be tackled with urgency, these policies are only making it worse.
There certainly exist better ways to achieve this. First of all, both governmental and non-governmental agencies should better regulate and monitor how these women’s migration process happens, trying to avoid the latter to make payments to brokers without substantial legal grounds. Many of these brokers charge costs significantly higher than the government’s established rates, but women are often too scared and too anxious to go abroad to report it. The government should also cooperate with destination country governments to put protection in place and promptly react when abuses occur.
Furthermore, more than addressing the consequences of this problem with such restrictions, the government could focus on limiting the causes that make it necessary. For example, creating more job opportunities in the country would be an incentive for women not to start this hazardous journey. While the government’s intentions and its consequent decisions can be good, the outcomes result from the government being predominantly male-dominated and lacking a female perspective. The Nepali government should engage more women in the decision-making process and understand their views of the issue.
Finally, the Nepali government should also better benefit from the international legal framework, e.g., by ratifying the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, with could be an additional tool that they could use.
While this delicate situation is undoubtedly unpleasant, some promising signs give hope for the future. Firstly, something that permeates is that the government is still very attentive to people’s opinions, and many proposals and draft laws are rescinded after massive criticism. Secondly, it shows how women can unite strength and take their fate and that of their country in hand. Women worldwide are sick of being seen as second-class citizens and are demanding social justice, defending their rights every day, through every possible means, and fighting for their future and that of their children. Nepali women are definitely not an exception to this positive trend.