Nepali Times
Misplaced chivalry


Despite Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's pledge last week that the government would soon lift its restrictions on women travelling to the Persian Gulf countries for employment, the Ministry of Labour and Transport Management (ML&TM), which the PM himself heads, seem in no hurry to end the ban.

"We imposed the ban to protect Nepali women from being exploited in the Gulf countries. And, we will not consider lifting it until we can make diplomatic arrangements to ensure their safety there," said LB Thapa, joint secretary at the ministry. He also said that the government is in the process of signing agreements with various Gulf nations to send Nepali workers there. "But legal agreements alone may not change the government's policy about women going to the Gulf for work. Cultural differences between the Gulf and Nepal will continue to make Nepali women vulnerable to exploitation," said Thapa.

The irony is that the ban has not stopped Nepali women from finding work in the Gulf countries (popularly known as 'Arab'). Nepali air hostesses working for Gulf Air and Qatar Airways fly in and out of Kathmandu airport all the time. When asked how it was that they could be working (technically, at least) in the Gulf with a government ban in place, Thapa said that the ministry is "not aware" of it. He added that the air hostesses have not taken permission from the ministry to work for the airlines, and should they land in any kind of trouble the government would not be in a position to help them.

Apart from the administrative weaknesses in implementation, all the ban does is close a legal avenue into the West Asian job market directly from Nepal. An open border with India and direct flights to Bangladesh provide plenty of opportunities for job-seekers to reach the Gulf. What the prohibition has done is make women more vulnerable to economic and sexual exploitation. Since the women now use illegal channels to reach their destinations, they remain invisible in official books and therefore unprotected by laws that ensure workers' rights.

Two years ago, a Nepali domestic working in Kuwait committed suicide in a hospital where she was admitted for treatment of injuries she had received from consistent sexual and physical abuse. Though various womens rights NGOs demanded that the government pursue diplomatic avenues to claim compensation for the victim, the government could do nothing for lack of proper evidence.

Women rights activists and trade unionists have criticised the government decision as chauvinistically imposed discrimination against women. "The ban has no practical meaning, women have been going over and working there anyway. Instead, it limits women's rights to decide where and whether they want to work," says Brinda Pandey, a trade unionist. "Instead the government should regulate the channels Nepali women use to go to the Gulf for employment."

During her South Asian visit last month, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy came down heavily on the government. Going beyond the Gulf ban, she described the legal provisions that require women to acquire consent from husbands or parents for passport applications, clearances from respective village development committee authorities to travel outside their villages, and the government restriction against women seeking employment in the West Asia as "serious obstructions against women's mobility". "These provisions have seriously violated women's one right (of free mobility) in the name of protecting another right (against trafficking)," she said.

"Restrictions against their free mobility will not stop trafficking in women for economic exploitation," says Tina Staermose of the International Labour Organisation in Kathmandu. An argument borne out by the fact that Nepali women cross the border into India by the thousand every year and end up in the brothels of Mumbai and Calcutta. The government has simply not been able to put an end to this trafficking, and by its across-the-board ban on women workers going to the Gulf has only succeeded in pushing an employment channel underground.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)