Our right to moveRestrictive policies have only served to delegitimise women’s free movement.
A couple of years ago, one of us was intercepted at the Sunauli border whilst crossing over on a rickshaw in the company of a male friend. Before we could say anything, we found ourselves in a room, being counselled for over an hour about the risks of being lured by the male friend and the risk of trafficking. It was only after we presented some papers identifying us as a law student en route to Pune for an academic conference in the company of eleven others were we let go.
Similarly, another one of us was stopped at the immigration at the Tribhuvan International Airport where officials took over an hour to determine whether we were genuinely on our way to Delhi for education (having presented a student ID card) or whether we were at the risk of being trafficked.
These are not isolated incidents. Many Nepali women have often been subjected to interrogation when travelling abroad independently, be it at the Nepal-India border or the immigration desk at the airport. Such questioning disproportionately targets women, where officials are overcome by the overwhelming concern to protect their Nepali ‘cheli’. This has been supported by the larger legislative framework, which largely curbs women’s mobility, particularly those seeking to travel to work abroad, in the pretext of protecting them—a discourse that has never been introduced in the case of men.
A few weeks ago, Nepali social media was fraught with angst towards a proposed recommendation, which called for a requirement that women under 40 years of age would need to obtain permission from their family and ward office to travel abroad alone for the first time on a visit visa. In addition to that, women were expected to acquire insurance of at least Rs1.5 million and show proof of having exchanged at least $1,000 before being allowed to leave. The Department of Immigration then released an official statement that the rule, if passed, will not be applicable to all women but only those who are travelling to the Gulf or Africa without a chaperone for the first time. The move was said to address the issue of women being trafficked, exploited and stranded abroad.
The proposal for amendment was not taken forward. However, such proposals are part of a plethora of restrictive policies governing the mobility of women in Nepal over the course of the past two decades. These policies place a disproportionate amount of attention to the ‘protection’ of women from perceived threats without taking into consideration the myriad of structural factors and socio-economic barriers—such as lack of recognition for women’s work, gender-based violence, lack of employment opportunities and unequal pay for equal work—that push women to resort to unsafe and precarious migration channels. One of them, ironically, is the restrictions placed on the mobility of female migrant workers.
Over the last two decades, the government has enforced several restrictions on female mobility, particularly those seeking employment outside Nepal, in the pretext of protecting them and reducing their vulnerabilities. These policies are often embedded in the nationalist rhetoric where men have defined, legalised and re-emphasised the division of the ‘feminine’ domestic realm and the ‘masculine’ public realm. Women’s ‘proper’ place within such rhetoric is as wives, mother or daughters while national politics is defined as a space for men where they are the real actors defending their freedom, their honour, their homeland and their women.
While restrictions are placed on women’s mobility to ‘protect’ them from being exploited in countries of destination, women have remained in equal or more danger at home. Between 2017 and 2020 the National Women Commission handled 12,047 cases related to various forms of violence and harassment; 98 percent of the applicants were women. Further, the Women, Children and Senior Citizen Service Directorate of Nepal registered 14,817 cases in 2019-2020 alone, out of which 2,144 were cases of rape, 687 cases of attempt of rape and 247 cases of human trafficking. As per this data, approximately six women get raped every day in Nepal.
Past experiences have demonstrated that restrictive policies have not contributed to protecting the rights of women. Instead, it has pushed women to opt for clandestine routes, often putting them at greater risk. Further, the protectionist stance taken by the government only serves to reinforce the assumptions that women are weak and vulnerable, and in need of state (or male) protection. These policies have only served to delegitimise women’s free movement.
Further, the logic behind imposing restrictions and bans to protect women from exploitation, forced labour and human trafficking appears erroneous when considering that migrant men are often equally at risk of being trafficked or exploited as migrant women. As per the Trafficking in Persons in Nepal, National Report September 2018 published by the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal estimated that nearly 35,000 Nepali citizens were trafficked that year out of which 15,000 (42 percent) were men. Does this mean we restrict the movement of men as well? While several Nepali men depart to Gulf countries to engage in precarious and often dangerous occupations, which pose numerous risks to their health and wellbeing, they rarely face limitations regarding their sexuality or mobility outside of the home.
Protecting the rights of women
The product of infantilisation, simplification and non-recognition of women and their work and migration experiences are protectionist migration policies that centre on restricting women’s ability to exercise autonomy over their work and movement. What is needed instead is a rights-based framework centred on equipping women with the knowledge and resources to exercise and assert their rights in origin, transit and destination countries.
Realising that restriction on mobility is not a plausible solution to address conditions that lead to trafficking, the Parliamentary Committee on Commerce, Labour and Consumer Welfare issued a directive to the government in September 2020 to lift the ban of migration for domestic work to the Gulf and Malaysia which was in place since 2017. Although it comes with seven pre-conditions which are extremely difficult fulfill, this was viewed as a welcome step toward ensuring women’s right to freedom of mobility—a fundamental right under the constitution, which is applicable to all equally.
The discourse that transpired few weeks ago, regardless of being shelved, was a harsh reminder of the fact that women continue to hold a secondary position in this country where they have to live under the constant fear that their fundamental rights can be taken away from them at any time. This only compels us, as women, to raise questions. Until when will we have no say in the decisions that are made for us? When will women, particularly those perceived as less-educated, low-skilled or low-class, be viewed as human beings, bearing rights and capable of making decisions for themselves?