Nepali Women Migrant Workers Left Behind from 16 Days of Activism Campaign

Author: Kalpana Rana
Image Credit: RISHI MOHAN

The international ’16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence’ campaign is observed between the 25th of November and 10th of December 2020 every year, spotlighting actions taken to end violence against women in a series of awareness-generating online events. It celebrates, commemorates, and recognizes the truth that, in its own words, “Women Rights are Human Rights” and “Violence against Women is a Violation of Human Rights.”

This year, unusual circumstances driven by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has escalated the frequency and intensity of abuse according to a number of studies around the world. The UN Secretary-general’s UNiTE campaign marked the issue under the global theme “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, and Collect,” unifying many activists under the umbrella campaign. It called for global action to be taken, in order to bridge funding gaps, ensure essential services for survivors of violence during the Covid-19 crisis, and focus on preventative measures, and collect data that can be used to improve life-saving services for women and girls around the world.

As has been the case every year, Nepalis (both at home and abroad) were actively involved in observing the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based violence campaign. As evident in the recent past, the activism and advocacy tended to revolve around issues concerning the physical, emotion, and psychological well-being of women involved in trafficking operations and forced sex-work. Additionally, advocacy efforts were also galvanized around issues of domestic violence, sexual abuse at home, work, public transportation, and problems of disappearance in conflict zones. Primarily, dowry, polygamy, child marriage, witchcraft allegations, abductions, rape, and murder were represented in a number of activism efforts observed under the campaign. After decades of continued advocacy, the government has outlawed several social, economic, and cultural practices harmful to women and girls within these reals. Examples include the end of Chhaupadi, Badi, Deuki, Jhuma, and Kamlari, etc. New legal provisions and mechanisms are endorsed aiming to end gender-based violence and ensure the protection of women’s rights.

However, one area of advocacy seems to be missing from the picture. Despite a number of different women’s issues being highlighted in the 16 Days of Activism campaign, the issue of Nepali women migrants being left behind at destinations is left unaddressed. This year’s theme was “A World of Work Free from Violence and Harassment: A Right and Obligation” — concentrated to raise awareness and influence action to create, ensure, and promote safe work environment for returned migrants and workers in the informal sector. Meanwhile, the problems faced by Nepali women migrant workers were left without much attention or discussion.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Nepal was one of 26 countries that shared the highest number of female migrants in 2019. Due to the open nature of the border and its enforcement bodies, the government ban at the GCC and age limitations put in effect have discriminated and pushed many Nepali women to migrant via irregular routes. As guidelines and laws become stricter and stricter, less and less women choose to migrant through legal pathways. It is estimated that around 54 women and girls are trafficked across the border in India every single day. Even the proportion of Nepali workers that are counted outside of the labor force is higher than the employed status, as shown in the figure below, as evidenced by data from Nepal’s Ministry of Labour, Employment, and Social Security (MoLESS).


Given this lopsided proportional status, it thus follows that undocumented, undignified, and unsafe employment has increased the challenging circumstances faced by Nepali migrant workers abroad — of course, including forms of violence. For example — according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), among Nepali migrants, it is estimated that 74 women have been exploited in various sex trafficking markets and another 80 have been taken advantage of in labor trafficking circles in 2019. The situation might actually be yet worse, as it is entirely possible that reports on incidence of violence during foreign employment are limited due to the lack of message of assurance of women’s safety and comfort. Thus, as less cases are reported, the data becomes unrepresentative and undermines the scale of the problem.

In a majority of cases, victims are afraid to complain and sue the employer or recruiting agency due to lack of their official documents based on anecdotal evidence. Housemaids are forced to suffer from a number of different kinds of physical, mental, and financial exploitation. In many cases, they are reported to be starved and overworked by their employers, sometimes for up to twenty hours a day.

The Covid-19 global pandemic experience has exposed and highlighted a number of socio-economic issues within and outside of Nepal. Women migrant workers have been getting unacceptable treatment in destination countries, treated as modern-day slaves in the matter of employment, dignity, and status, and finally deported inhumanely when their tenure is completed. Thus, the various forms and frequencies of gender-based violence may be different across the countries, but the pain and vulnerabilities that women face during foreign employment is common. A strong push is required to build momentum that would allow victims to raise their voices and legal efforts to ensure social protections and a sense of safety both at home and abroad. To support this cause, the 16 Days of Activism campaign in the future positions itself as a platform for Nepali female migrant workers’ issues in order to effectively tackle the broad spectrum of violence faced by women and girls.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.