Gulf: Nepalese women domestic workers suffer sexual & physical assault

According to a press release issued by Nepalese Embassy in Saudi Arabia on Jul. 12 housemaids are sometimes sold from one master to another if they aren't satisfied with them. "Majority of these women are raped, sexually and physically assaulted."
On Jul. 11, 15 women between the ages of 22 and 28 landed by a Gulf Airlines flight at Nepal's Tribhuvan International Airport. One woman was clad in a burqa (a veil that covers from head to ankles), torn slippers on her feet. She was clutching a big plastic bag, tears streaming down her cheeks. Shobha Raut (name changed) was weeping with joy, she says. "I was happy just being alive and I couldn't believe my luck," she told IPS in an interview at a local shelter for abused women, Paurakhi Nepal - a non government organisation working for the welfare of migrant women workers.
Raut, 30, who is from Kohalpur Chisapani-1 in mid-western Nepal, was a domestic worker in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She says she was tortured by her employees, and returned home penniless. Her husband has not bothered to pick her up.

"I can't explain it in words," she says. "It was living hell. They used to beat me so badly for everything. I used to sleep only two hours, and if I dozed off during the day, the men would kick me," she cries as she talks.


In 2002, UNIFEM initiated an Asia Pacific and Arab State Regional Programme on Empowering Women Migrant Workers (WMWs).

Regional Programme Manager for Migration, Sharu Joshi Shrestha, told IPS that UNIFEM has been raising the issue of WMWs from before their employment to pre-departure, transit, employment and reintegration.

She believes there has been a paradigm shift in the Nepal governemnt's position - from a welfare approach to rights-based.

The "Foreign Employment Act (2007) specifically calls for an end to all forms of discrimination based on sex in foreign employment and specifies provisions to protect the WMWs," Shrestha says.

"The Association of Foreign Employment Agencies has come up with a Code of Conduct ensuring their accountability towards WMWs."

Similarly, UNIFEM has facilitated the establishment of a National Network on Safe Migration (NNSM) which is a work group that raises the issue of migrant workers especially WMWs with the aim of holding all stakeholders accountable for their rights.

Shrestha says that in the absence of labour laws to safeguard domestic workers, their undocumented status, lack of information and skills, increase their vulnerabilities many times at different stages of the migration process: recruitment, entry, stay and work.

"To address this multi-pronged issue, we need to consider the globalised nature of foreign employment, the lack of job opportunities in Nepal, growing demand for women in the international labour markets (mostly informal), growing food insecurity and inflation, and the mostly open border with India, and the 1951 treaty with India," she adds. Three months after she began working, Raut fell very ill. Her employers threw her out on the street. Without work papers, she was arrested and jailed for one a half months. On her release, she was taken to Nepal's embassy in Riyadh, from where she was repatriated to Kathmandu with temporary travel papers on Jul. 11.

Raut says she was lured by a local agent - a Nepali man with a job in Saudi Arabia - who told her that she could repay the 20,000 rupees (25 dollars) she borrowed from him when she returned. "I later found out that he had already been paid by my Arabi employer," she adds.

Raut's story is not unique. Despite restrictions imposed in 1998 to discourage women from working abroad as domestic help, roughly 40,000 women are working in the Gulf, according to a joint National Institute for Development Studies (NIDS) and UNIFEM study in 2006.

Since the majority of women migrant workers (WMW) go through agents, their process of migration is irregular and their status undocumented in their own country. Consequently, they are open to exploitation by so-called foreign employment "agents".

Devendra Bhattarai, a journalist with Kantipur National Daily (a Nepali newspaper) who was based in Qatar for a year and reported on migrant workers, says local Arab employers give a Nepali worker two free airline tickets and around 1,000 riyal (250 dollars) for every domestic helper they recruit from their country.

"The Nepali worker becomes an agent as it is highly unlikely that they can earn this kind of money on their own. They also use one of the free tickets to fly in a housemaid … It has become a lucrative business for some," he adds.

In May, 20-year-old Prava Limbu (name changed) fled naked from her employer's house in Jeddah after she was gang raped by five house guests. She reported that she was sexually assaulted regularly for nearly five months by the father and son of the house but she ran away when the guests raped her.

Limbu who was among the 15 women repatriated by the Nepali embassy in Riyadh, told an official, "Where could I go and file a complaint when I had an illegal document?"

Raima Khatun, 30, from Dhading district in central Nepal, who was on the Gulf Airlines flight to Kathmandu, is twice married and has a 10-year-old daughter. Her second husband left her for a younger woman. Nearly starving, she jumped at the first opportunity she got to go the Gulf when her brother-in-law offered her a job in Saudi Arabia.

For two months she slaved without pay for a large family of 15. Unable to take the "torture" any more, she fled with the help of her uncle, but her passport remained with her employer. (Nearly everywhere, employees have to surrender their passports to employers.) When she was arrested, she was working without papers in another house.

Nepal's 2007 Foreign Employment Act prohibits women from migrating to the Gulf for employment in the informal sector. The act was introduced with the intention of safeguarding women's labour and checking their exploitation abroad. But women are still going, using the porous border with India route to the Gulf.

Nepal's embassy in Riyadh has again written to the government to stop women from migrating to the Gulf because conditions there are "deplorable".

Nepalese ambassador to Saudi Arabia Hamid Ansari told IPS in a telephone conversation that although the embassy has written to Kathmandu, the number of women entering the Gulf countries is increasing daily. "We have not been able to do much diplomatic work due to these cases," he said.

It is estimated that 10,000 of the nearly 200,000 Nepali workers in Saudi Arabia are domestic help; in Qatar, there are 5,000 housemaids among the 300,000 Nepalis.

The Gulf countries have set up labour courts where the exploited and poorly paid workers can lodge their complaints. But most Nepali domestics are not free to leave the house.

Yubaraj Pandey, secretary, Ministry of Labour and Transport Management, says the issue is very sensitive, and has to be dealt with care. "The ministry has requested the foreign ministry to look into this issue diplomatically and to hold talks with India regarding checking at the border for those who carry housemaid visas."

There is a technical problem, however. There are no restrictions on women with "worker" visas. Pandey admits it is frustrating, but adds: "The government is very serious about solving the problem."

26 August 2009

By Renu Kshetry

Source: IPS