SINDHUPALCHOK, Nepal – Phurpa Tamang, 36, has been struggling for almost an hour to find a mobile signal in the remote village of Sindhupalchok. He’s trying to make a video call to his wife, Kalpana, in Dubai.
“The kids want to talk with their mother, but the network seldom works here. And there is no Wi-Fi in this village,” Phurpa says. Finally, he gets a connection. Their young daughter and son are all smiles as they speak with their mother.
When Phurpa and Kalpana got married around eight years ago, they were farmers. But couldn’t grow enough on their mountain farm in central Nepal to support the family each year.
“It was very hard for us to meet our basic needs. This prompted me to search for a job but to no avail,” Kalpana says. “Our situation was getting worse day by day. We were not able to feed our children properly. Then, I decided to get a job in Dubai.”
She was aware of the stories of awful work conditions and abuse brought back by women who had taken jobs in the Gulf. But she felt she had no other choice. In 2014, she left for Dubai.
Now, she is grateful the stories didn’t stop her. She earns $420 a month working as a housemaid for a family that treats her well. She has learned to speak Arabic and has freedom to travel. The money she sends home has been enough to rebuild her family’s house, which was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, as well as putting some aside for savings.
The job in Dubai has been so good for Kalpana that after taking a few months off to spend time with her family in Nepal, she risked breaking the law to go back. While she had gotten a permit to go to Dubai the first time, her second trip over there was planned after Nepal banned women from traveling to the Gulf for domestic work. For Kalpana, the promise of providing for her family was stronger than the ban, so she returned to Dubai undocumented.
“I am an illiterate from a remote village. I never imagined I could earn a lot of money and provide a better future for my kids,” she says.
Banned from Becoming Foreign Domestic Workers
I am an illiterate from a remote village. I never imagined I could earn a lot of money and provide a better future for my kids.
Figures from the Department of Foreign Employment of Nepal show that more than 176,000 Nepali women have been granted labor permits since records started in 2008, traveling mainly to the UAE, Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and Jordan.
In response to reports of the abuse of maids in the Gulf, Nepal made it illegal for women to travel to the region for domestic work in 2016. Still, in 2017, more than 20,000 women were given permits to travel for other kinds of jobs, a 8.95 percent increase from the year before. And experts say the number of Nepali women working in foreign countries could be twice as high, as many travel out of Nepal undocumented to circumvent the ban.
Many of these women end up being exploited and return to Nepal worse off than when they left. But other women say migrant work offers them the chance to make good money and learn new skills – opportunities they could never have if they stayed home.
By working abroad to improve the lives of their families, Kalpana Tamang and women like her also benefit their country’s economy: The money they send home contributes to remittances that make up almost 30 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product.
More than 42 percent of Nepali adult women are illiterate and most are jobless, according to the 2011 national census. But they can find work in places like the Gulf, since domestic work doesn’t require any formal education.
“I was working, even though it was very hard. But I could not tolerate it when [my employer] sexually abused me. I asked my agency in Qatar to send me back home.”
“Women who are not able to make money in Nepal can make thousands in the Gulf,” Amina Maharjan, Livelihood Migration Specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), says. A woman who has never left her village on her own can now move to a foreign country to learn life skills and earn a decent wage, putting her in a position to make her own decisions back home. “This is the biggest change to the condition of women that Nepal has seen over the last decade,” Maharjan says.
It helps explain why so many women are willing to travel for domestic work, despite the horror stories. “Nobody can stop them going – they will go anyway,” Maharjan says.
Abused and Undocumented
When Asha Paudel, now 22, left her home in Kohalpur, Banke district in March to work in Qatar, the agency she went through told her she would be working as a cleaner in a school. Instead, she ended up working for a family where she was beaten and sexually assaulted.
“I was working, even though it was very hard. But I could not tolerate it when [my employer] sexually abused me. I asked my agency in Qatar to send me back home,” Paudel says.
Paudel came back to Nepal, but was too traumatized to go home to her family. She currently lives in a shelter in Kathmandu managed by the NGO Pourakhi, which gives support to migrant women returning to Nepal, including providing short-term accommodation to those who have been abused and exploited.
Every month, Pourakhi receives around 15 to 20 women who need somewhere to live, the organization’s general secretary, Satra Gurung, says. Almost all of them had traveled to another country undocumented.
Chairman of the Nepal Institute of Development Studies Ganesh Gurung says the number of women who leave the country for work without permits – sometimes flying out through airports in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – is almost double that of those who migrate legitimately. “Many more [migrant women] use illegal methods, like fake travel documents. This makes them easy prey for ruthless recruiters, abusive employers and sexual predators,” he says.
But Gurung isn’t convinced that a ban on women traveling for domestic work is the best way to protect them. “There is not any exact data on how many women workers face problems. How can the government impose such a ban without the proper research?” he says
Mahesh Prasad Dahal, secretary at the Ministry of Labor, says the government is working on signing bilateral agreements and memorandum of understanding with various destination countries with the aim of eventually lifting the domestic work ban. “Once we sign such agreements, we will again allow women to go [to those countries] as housemaids,” he says.
Nepal has already resumed granting work permits for women going to Jordan, after the two countries signed an agreement in October 2017. As part of the deal, Jordan agrees to make sure employers pay their domestic workers a minimum wage of $250 per month, cover necessary medical costs and don’t subject them to forced labor or confiscate their passports. The government says it will fully investigate reports of violence against domestic workers. For its part, Nepal set up support services at its embassy in Jordan for Nepali women who go to the country for work and suffer abuse.
Amina Maharjan, the migration specialist at ICIMOD, says more of these types of agreements are needed to make sure women migrant workers get the benefits of working in a foreign country without suffering the risks.
“When these women have earned some money and enhanced their skills, they will return to Nepal and start doing something effective,” she says.
That’s what happened to Budha Maya Tamang, a 40-year-old mother of three. Her husband used to work as a mason, but then fell sick and was unable to work. “Earning money in Nepal as a woman was impossible,” she says. “I decided to go to the Gulf.”
Leaving her children with her husband, Tamang spent six years working as a housemaid for a family of seven in Kuwait, where she learned to cook, use modern appliances and run a household. “Most importantly, I learned how to manage money,” she says.
When she came home, she brought back $15,000 and a set of skills that she could use to start her own business. Today, she operates a fast-food shop in Chautara, Sindhupalchok, and counsels other women in how to secure work permits for jobs in the Gulf.
“My life has changed a lot in these years,” she says. “From poor, unhappy, uneducated and helpless mother to happy, hard-working, smart woman.”