Out of Nepal: Women’s Labor Migration

Features, Issue 4 - June 2016, Issue 4 Features, Nepal

By Amanda Peskin

Ani, a 25-year old Nepali law student living in Kathmandu, hasn’t seen her mother in person in almost ten years. That’s how long Ani’s mother, Karma, has been working abroad as a nanny in Israel. [1] Karma has been communicating with Ani and her two younger daughters via phone and Skype for a significant part of their lives. “Had she been here with me, I would’ve experienced the life of a normal teenager who talks to her mom daily about stuff she can’t talk about with other family members. We can talk on WhatsApp, but it’s not the same. My life would be easier,” says Ani.

Karma, now aged 45, is one of thousands of Nepali women who have sought employment abroad in pursuit of economic and social opportunities. In 2011, there were over 237,000 Nepali women working outside of Nepal, about 12 percent of the total number of the 2.2 million Nepali migrants.[2] According to the Kathmandu-based Center for the Study of Labour and Mobility, Nepali female labor migrants work in countries such as India, Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, primarily as domestic workers and caregivers. Some, like Karma, receive awareness and skills training before they go; others cross the open border into India and later migrate to a destination country, avoiding the formal migration processes and age restrictions of the Nepali government.[3]

A woman waits to depart Nepal at Kathmandu’s Tribuvhan International Airport. Amanda Peskin, 2016

A woman waits to depart Nepal at Kathmandu’s Tribuvhan International Airport. Amanda Peskin, 2016

Women are motivated to seek employment abroad by the promise of opportunities that do not exist for them in Nepal. “The major factor for me,” says Karma, “was that I would not get a better job in Nepal to contribute to my children’s education.” She is one of the fortunate ones: after receiving comprehensive skills and Hebrew language training for six months, she migrated to Israel and has been working for a kind family who pays her a fair and regular salary. Other female labor migrants, especially those who are unskilled and illiterate, do not always land in a safe or secure employment situation abroad.

Social and Economic Opportunities and Risks

Labor migration is a lucrative livelihood option for Nepali women and men, especially those from rural areas. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) notes that migration holds the potential to restructure gender relations and power hierarchies by providing opportunities for men and women to alter their social status, escape oppression, and support themselves and their family members. But migration can expose migrants to abusive working conditions, ill-defined legal status in a foreign country, physical and mental health risks, and stigma upon return to their home country. It can also put a financial strain on a family: recruiting agencies in Nepal continue to charge potential labor migrants fees as high as US$700-$800 despite the government’s “free-visa, free-ticket” scheme that supposedly restricts recruitment agencies from charging more than 10,000 rupees (about US$100).

The lack of economic opportunity inside Nepal is a major reason that women are migrating abroad for work. Besides the “pull” factor of potential financial gain, other issues, such as marital problems and gender discrimination, serve as “push” factors that inspire women to seek job opportunities outside of Nepal. The financial benefits of labor migration are evident in the skyrocketing amount of remittances—money sent home from Nepali labor migrants worldwide—which are a major boon to individual households and the Nepali economy as a whole. In 2012, remittances from Nepali labor migrants totaled US$4 billion, or 23 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, a steep increase from the previous decade. Further, the share of Nepali households receiving remittances increased from 32 percent in 2004 to 56 percent in 2011, an indication that a wider array of households are sending workers abroad.

A returned Nepali migrant worker learns income-generating textile skills taught by the Migrant Women’s Worker Group in Kathmandu. Photo Credit: Sunila Shrestha / MWWG

A returned Nepali migrant worker learns income-generating textile skills taught by the Migrant Women’s Worker Group in Kathmandu. Photo Credit: Sunila Shrestha / MWWG

A 2006 study by UNIFEM (now UN Women) found that remittances sent home by women migrant workers were most often used for daily household necessities, children’s education, home construction, and loan repayments. Researchers have noted that remittances can have impacts beyond increased household spending: they can influence attitudes toward gender roles and women’s participation in the labor market. Saru Joshi Shrestha, who heads the economic empowerment program at UN Women’s Nepal office, notes that the incomes Nepali women have earned enhance their status within their families and communities. Further, female migrant workers gain social skills, experiences, and exposure to the world outside of Nepal. While working abroad, Nepali women living outside of their maternal or marital home for the first time in their lives may be able to experience a new independence. When they return to Nepal, “They’re proud of their cosmopolitanism and earning power,” says Sunila Shrestha, founder of the Migrant Women Workers Group (MWWG), a Kathmandu-based organization dedicated to helping potential, current, and returned female labor migrants.

Vulnerabilities of Women Migrant Workers

There are other, negative ramifications for women labor migrants and their relatives who remain in Nepal. Female migration contributes to both brain drain and what Saru Joshi Shrestha calls “care drain,” or a woman’s absence from her family for whom she would typically provide care—while she is, ironically, living abroad to care for a different family. The absence of Nepali women in their own households may burden younger women in the family, such as the migrant woman’s daughters or younger sisters, as they are expected to shoulder the remaining domestic work. Time working abroad, while financially useful, is also emotionally stressful for the labor migrant, as many women contemplate how to compensate their spouses, children, and parents for years spent away.

Notoriously, all migrant workers face numerous dangers. Nepali women have reported sexual, physical, and emotional abuse at the hands of their employers abroad, or salaries far below what a broker may have promised. Depending on bilateral agreements between the governments of Nepal and labor destination countries, labor migrants might or might not be able to access help while abroad. In 2014, a shelter in Kuwait housed 300 Nepali women labor migrants awaiting repatriation to Nepal after their employment situations had become volatile. The IOM reports that low-skilled female labor migrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, especially in the Middle East. But Sunila Shrestha of MWWG notes that many women will not talk about these negative experiences once they return to Nepal. “They won’t share their bad stories in public, even if something traumatic happened to them abroad, like if they were raped, because of fear of stigma. From the moment a labor migrant leaves her door to the moment she returns, she is unsafe.”

An advertisement for money transfers appealing to Nepali migrant workers departing from Nepal’s international airport. Amanda Peskin, 2016

An advertisement for money transfers appealing to Nepali migrant workers departing from Nepal’s international airport. Amanda Peskin, 2016

Labor Migration: Is it Worth It to Nepali Women?

A number of organizations exist in Nepal to help prepare outgoing women migrant workers, ease the transition back for returning workers, and rehabilitate those who had traumatic experiences abroad. MWWG provides information on safe and legal migration to women interested in going abroad for work, as well as a supportive environment after they return. Sunila Shrestha says that after living abroad and experiencing independence, Nepali women may be reluctant to return to their small villages and resume traditional village life. Instead, some returned women migrants stay in Kathmandu and attempt to make a living. MWWG provides these women an opportunity to learn handicrafts, such as making bamboo-fiber attire, and sell their wares at various markets in the city.

Karma ponders what her life in Nepal would have been like had she not left for Israel a decade ago. “Since there are hundreds and thousands of unemployed people back in Nepal, if I had been there I would have fallen under the same category. My life would not be as it is now. I would not have experienced and learned so many things: freedom, confidence, self-growth, and the feeling of living alone abroad.” Her sentiments echo Sunila Shrestha’s observations: “It’s an important opportunity for women—as long as the migration is safe migration through formal channels.”

When asked if she thinks she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and seek employment outside of Nepal, Ani says no. “Since I now have a law degree here, I would only go abroad to get an additional degree and then work here in Nepal. For me, if you have a nice job opportunity here and you’re happy with your life and status, migration is not worth it. But if you’re frustrated with life in Nepal, it might be worth it.” Karma’s labor migration is one of the main reasons that Ani feels that she does have opportunities in Nepal; after all, her mother’s income from working abroad has largely paid for Ani’s law degree. With higher education, she has access to employment opportunities that her mother never did. “She wants to come back here in about two years,” says Ani of her mother. “We’ll have to get to know each other again.”


[1] Names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identity

[2] The actual number of women migrating for labor is likely higher, since not all workers migrate through formal processes.

[3] In 2012, Nepal’s government banned women under 30 from working abroad as domestic laborers in Gulf countries due to concerns of abuse and exploitation. This restriction, however, may be inspiring women to migrate outside of formal channels, thereby increasing their vulnerability to abuse.

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