Nepali workers in the Gulf fall easy prey to ruthless recruiters and abusive employers, but women have to also deal with sexual predators
Maya is a 35-year-old mother of three school-age children. She goes door to door begging for cleaning jobs and lives in her brother’s rented room in Bhaktapur.
Maya had gone abroad with the promise of working as a janitor in a hospital. Instead, like many other innocent migrant workers, she ended up being brutalised and forced into prostitution.
An estimated 244,000 Nepali women work in the Gulf, mainly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. One-third of them fly out from Indian airports, not Kathmandu and three-fourths use illegal methods like fake travel documents. This makes them easy prey for ruthless recruiters, abusive employers and sexual predators.
A study by the Foreign Nepali Workers Rescue Center found that nearly 90 per cent of women suffer some form of sexual violence or exploitation. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are the worst offenders.
6 countries with the highest number of female Nepali migrants in 2012
Source: UN Women and Nepal Institute for Development Studies (NIDS)
Maya had an alcoholic husband and needed to earn more to send her three children to a good school. An agent offered a decent job in a hospital, and she was tempted by the promise of a salary unimaginable in Nepal.
IT’LL BE OK: Maya comforts her daughters in her one-room home in Bhaktapur this week. She was sold as a sex slave four years ago by a recruiter who promised her a job in a Kuwait hospital.
On arriving in Kuwait Maya was overcome with doubt and homesickness. “I remember asking myself, have I done the right thing?” she recalls. Two well-dressed Nepali speaking women received her at the airport, and took her to the 25th floor of a highrise, where her passport was taken away. A week later, she was given a slinky dress to put on and joined 50 other women like her from India, Philippines and Nepal.
Later that day, she was sent to a private room with a corpulent man with a dense moustache who asked her to undress. It soon became obvious that the Kuwaiti woman ran a brothel in the apartment. Life became a living hell for Maya as she was raped by up to eight men a day. She often fainted, unaware of what was being done to her. When she came to her senses, she would have bites and nail scratches on her body.
It became so unbearable that one day she refused to go with a customer. The pimp beat her up severely, and with the help of the customer, threw her out of the window of the high rise. It was a miracle she was not killed in the fall, but suffered a fractured spine and broke her left hand.
Maya's left leg was broken when she was thrown away from the brothel in Kuwait.
With the help of Nepali and Kuwaiti friends, she was taken to hospital for treatment but they sent her back to the brothel. After a month, she managed to escape again but the Kuwaiti brothel owner filed a police case accusing Maya of stealing gold ornaments. She was thrown in jail for six months, but a court finally found her innocent. The Nepal Embassy provided her a ticket home, but in Kathmandu Maya’s family refused to take her back.
Hema is 45 and, like Maya, decided to go abroad to work to pay off a home loan. A recruiter offered a job as household help in Saudi Arabia. There, the employer beat her mercilessly, the nephew repeatedly raped her. The wives of her employer knew about it but kept quiet. After two years of abuse, Hema returned to Nepal in 2013 penniless, emotionally shattered and with health problems.
Hema hasn’t told her story to anyone, not even family members for fear that she will be ostracised. “If I tell them they will abandon me,” she says.
Dilmaya used to be beaten by her husband, and got so sick of it decided to go abroad to find work. In 2008, a recruiter took her to Qatar illegally via India. She worked as a domestic helper, and her employer raped her regularly. She returned her to Nepal in 2011 penniless and with a baby. She was accused of bringing dishonour to the family, and was thrown out.
The Director General of the Department of Foreign Employment, Krishnahari Puskar, admitted to us in an interview that 90 per cent of the 500 women who leave for the gulf countries every day do so illegally.
Asked if it is not the government’s responsibility, Puskar said the Nepal government does not encourage women who go abroad to work, but cannot stop them from doing so. “We may face criticism if we ban them from going abroad to work,” he told us.
Hundreds of Nepali women queue up for passports at the Foreign Ministry every day and most are going to the Gulf to work as household help.
Sita Ghimire, works for the Safe Migration Project at Helvetas and says female Nepali migrant workers lack protection, are victims of non-payment of wages, retrenchment without notice or compensation, unsatisfactory occupational health and safety conditions and an absence of social benefits such as pensions, sick pay and health insurance.
Manju Gurung of Paurakhi, which works helps with rights for abused migrant women when they return to Nepal and are not accepted by their families. “The women is often rejected by her husband, family and society,” says Gurung, “their life back home is sometimes even more painful than in the Gulf.”
Dale Buscher, a migration expert at the Women's Refugee Commission says the problem lies with the recruiters, who do not openly share the risks involved and employers who take advantage of the women's vulnerability of being in a foreign land without access to the legal system.
Dale adds: “Also responsible are both the sending and receiving country governments who have not put protective measures and appropriate legislation in place.”
Today, despite her injuries, Maya is slowly returning to a more normal life. It is the determination to provide for her three children that keeps her going.
One of her brothers came forward to provide shelter and food. But without help from the government and her family, Maya has no idea what the future will bring.
Names of migrant workers have been changed.
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