KATHMANDU, Nepal – Two-and-a-half-year-old Ansuman Thatal wakes up from his nap with a start. He scans the room, and before anyone can comfort him, begins bawling: “Baba, baba, baba.”
By this point, the baba, or daddy, in question – Ashok Thatal – has been away for a week. For his wife, Shova, and 7-year-old daughter, such a state of affairs is normal.
Ashok has spent most of his adult life working menial jobs in Gulf states thousands of miles away from his home in Eastern Nepal, but the baby doesn’t care to hear it.
“He cries a lot. When he sees his dad in the video chat he cries, ‘Daddy daddy!’ My daughter also thinks about him a lot but there isn’t any option; he went to make a better future. We want our children to go to private school and this is the only way to do it,” Shova Thatal explains.
In Shova’s native Jhapa district, human migration is the chief industry. Both of her brothers work abroad, as do several of her in-laws. Among her neighbors, the men were either abroad, recently returned from abroad or applying to leave.
In 2015, the last year for which there is data, more than 18,000 people in Jhapa received a labor permit, nearly double the figure from 2009, when it was 9,500. In all of Nepal, only one district, Dhanusha, sees higher numbers of migrants.
Towns Without Men
When Shova got married eight years ago, she had few illusions about what her family life would look like.
“He was already working in Saudi Arabia [at that time],” she says. “He came back, we got married, and he stayed until his daughter was 8 months old – then went back.”
“I knew he would go away again because the only way to earn money is by going abroad.”
With so many men abroad, life in villages like Rangila Chowk has changed momentously within a very short period of time.
Shova manages everything at home. She is the decision-maker when it comes to child-rearing and household finances, but she is also responsible for the considerable side businesses that help support her family.
In her yard are three pigs and a tractor for hire. Her house doubles as a shop, restaurant, teahouse and bar. When I meet her, Shova is constantly on the move – helping her daughter change out of school clothes, calming her son, cooking up a few plates of noodles for customers, before drawing tea for a pair of young men who have just wandered in.
During pauses, she urges her 7-year-old daughter to show off what she has learned in school. With a look of concentration, Ashrika writes – in English – the names of all her family members. We ask if she has spoken with her father since he left.
“I talked to him yesterday and he told me to study hard and be a good girl. He said I’ll buy a bicycle and laptop if you’re first in your class,” she says.
The situation in Shova’s village is being played out across Nepal. In remote mountain villages, in busy plains towns, across caste, religion and ethnicity, the men are leaving in droves and the women are taking on new responsibilities. Around 2 million Nepalese people work abroad, and that figure is rising yearly. Money sent home by foreign workers now makes up 32 percent of GDP.
In some areas, like the small Maithil villages in neighboring Dhanusha district, that change has led to societal upheavals.
More Freedom, Heavier Burden
Babita Kumari Yadav is one of the few women in Potohr village who moves about freely. Traditionally, residents of this area have practiced an extreme form of cloistering, where women stay in or around the household compound while their in-laws and husbands handle day-to-day interactions.
With her husband in Qatar for nearly a decade, however, Babita has had to become self-reliant.
“Now I have to do the outside work, household work, the work in the farm,” she says. “Earlier my husband would do these things but now I do it all and it’s very hard. It’s a lot to carry.”
That independence has made her an uncomfortable sight in the village. “Because I’m alone and a single woman, the community doesn’t see me in a good way,” Babita said, explaining that she’s become a pariah of sorts.
“They don’t talk to me and I don’t go to anyone’s house … if there’s an argument no one helps.”
And yet, stories like Babita’s are becoming more common. Indeed, the very fact of a reporter being able to meet and talk with someone like Babita – who never attended school and speaks the local Madhesi language instead of Nepali – represents a change.
“Women earlier, especially the uneducated ones, used to be afraid to speak to strangers, or even other villagers. But it’s different now. Even women with husbands here are more open,” Santos Mahato, a teacher who lives in Potohr, says.
“Almost all the households here have people abroad now.”
These changes also come at a cost to the men involved. The work can be risky and exploitative. Stories of labor brokers taking money for work permits and visas then vanishing are not uncommon, nor are tales of bosses absconding with salaries.
Nearly every day, the local newspapers carry stories of migrant workers abused on the job, blocked from coming home, arrested and even killed.
And yet, with migration so omnipresent, such risks barely rate in people’s decision to leave. For the young men from places like Rangila Chowk and Potohr, there is simply no other option.
This story was supported by the International Reporting Project. Pragati Shahi contributed translation and reporting.