Activists protest proposed ban on Nepali women travelling abroad
4th May 2021
A proposed law in Nepal banning women from travelling abroad without a permission letter from their families and government wards has caused uproar. It contradicts the rights to freedom of movement and asylum under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Nepal is a signatory. It was introduced by the Department of Immigration in February of this year and aims to prevent women being trafficked, while making it easier for governments to contact citizens in trouble overseas. According to a 2018 UNODC report, 35,000 Nepalese people were victims of human trafficking that year, including 15,000 women and 5,000 girls.
Activists have pointed out that it is not only women who are trafficked, and policymakers should consider both women and men in any proposed legal changes. Hima Bista, executive director at Women Lead Nepal, told protesters that the thinking behind the proposed law is “extremely dangerous” and demonstrates “how deep-rooted the patriarchal mindset is.” Patriarchal attitudes have had a long tradition of restricting the autonomy of women in Nepal. In 1988, during the reign of the monarchy, the Foreign Employment Act was amended, requiring women to obtain permission from a guardian (usually a parent, husband or brother) as well as the Nepali government.
The country later adopted a more progressive stance following the downfall of the monarchy. In 2007, the Foreign Employment Act stated that “No gender discrimination shall be made while sending workers for foreign employment”. The latest development, however, demonstrates the persistence of traditional patriarchal views within the state apparatus. In 2017, the Nepali government issued an order banning Nepali citizens from travelling to the Gulf for jobs as domestic workers.
“Gulf countries employ migrant domestic workers under the “Kafala” system, by which their mobility is controlled by their employer. This means that employers hold the passports of migrant workers and have legal control over their ability to change employment or leave the country.”
Although the Kafala system is problematic, feminist activists criticize the 2017 ban as compounding the issues faced by Nepali migrant women. Again, the ban was to protect citizens from being trafficked. In reality, instead of protecting women from exploitation, the ban discriminates against women as the main cohort seeking domestic work, and even places them in danger.
The Gulf countries remain a favourite destination of Nepali women, as salaries for domestic workers far outstrip those in Nepal. Due to the 2017 legislation, women choose to travel through neighbouring countries, such as India, with which Nepal shares an open border, before travelling on to the Middle East. This leaves women undocumented, and more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. Activists refute the claim that further restrictions on women’s freedom of movement will prevent the exploitation and abuse of women. The average salary of women in Nepal is only $5,497 per annum, meaning that many will choose to emigrate without documentation. The most recent proposals restricting women consolidates this fear.
The recent proposals have been shrouded in confusion regarding the actual content of the proposed changes to legislation. Teknarayan Paudel, director of the Department of Immigration, insisted in an interview with The Republic, that every female under 40 would have to obtain the letter of permission. The stance of the Department of Immigration, however, is that the requirement would only apply to women travelling alone for the first time to countries in the Middle East and Africa. Despite this contradiction, it appears as though the intention was to impose a blanket ban on all countries. The limited ban seems to have been a revaluation of the original intention in response to the backlash. The department clarified that the law only applied to “vulnerable” women and has not yet been finalised.