Through the barricadesWhen Moti Sara Budha, of Bardiya, boarded a flight for Kuwait six years ago, she was determined to return home a successful woman. She wanted to return with enough money to build a small hut for her old father
When Moti Sara Budha, of Bardiya, boarded a flight for Kuwait six years ago, she was determined to return home a successful woman. She wanted to return with enough money to build a small hut for her old father and start a modest business for herself. Today, she has surpassed those expectations: she is a successful small-business entrepreneur with a poultry farm that is doing exceedingly well.
The received and perceived notion in Nepali society is that female migrants are weak, helpless beings who routinely fall prey to trafficking and return home sexually exploited. However, there are quite a few women like Moti who have benefited from foreign employment and returned home with enough capital to start their own businesses and buy for themselves some measure of independence.
Getting to that point, however, isn’t usually easy. Life in Kuwait City was not easy for Moti: she had not left Nepal trained in some skilled vocation, and she also had to overcome the language barrier. Unlike many of the outbound male workers, who these days at least get some vocational training—welding, driving, plumbing, masonry, etc—many women like Moti go abroad completely unprepared. They rely merely on their ability to slog through days and nights, mostly as domestic help, and save whatever they can.
“Initially it was very difficult for me to even use the gadgets in the kitchen. I had never seen such things,” says Moti. “I also had problems communicating with my employers because I did not know Arabic.”
Most women who want to go abroad don’t enrol in training programmes because they have to first get past society’s strictures—which usually means their families—and until just a few months ago, the government’s as well. Most families are worried that women will be exploited abroad, and the government had in place an age bar, whereby women below the age of 30 could not apply for work in the Gulf countries and Malaysia. Despite these barriers, women who didn’t have the option to make a livable income here have, out of desperation, continued to seek jobs abroad, usually as domestic help, in countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
To help women such as Moti learn some of the basics about how work and living conditions will be abroad, organisations like Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (Worec), Shakti Samuha and Pourkahi provide orientation programmes before the women leave Nepal.
Kalpana Shiwakoti works as a peer educator at Worec’s office in Rajghat, Morang, and helps run the organisation’s orientation programmes. Shiwakoti, a mother of three, uses anecdotes from her own experiences abroad to teach women what they should expect once they leave the safe confines of home. Shiwakoti worked as a ‘house maid’ in Saudi Arabia for four years and many of the stories she tells the women who show up at her orientation programmes sound genuine to them because she has lived the life.
She doesn’t discourage women to go abroad. “But I do encourage them to get trained in some skills, such as hairdressing, and if their family disallows that, we ask the women to come here and learn about kitchen work and brush up on the language of the country they intend to go to, at least enough to communicate.”
Shiwakoti herself didn’t leave under the best circumstances, or with the right skills. Eight years ago, her family had borrowed Rs 40,000 to send her husband to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, her husband’s medical tests showed he had Hepatitis B. The manpower company that was supposed to find a job for him did not reimburse the money, but did agree to send over someone else in his stead, without additional processing fees.
So in stepped Shiwakoti. She was willing to leave behind three children, the youngest of whom was only two-and-a-half years old, and work as a housemaid. When she got to Kuwait, she learned that her employers would be paying her just Rs 11 thousand a month, less than a fourth of what she had been promised by her agent. But she slowly won over her employers with her hard work and soon earned a raise. Three-and-a-half years later, she returned home with enough money to set up a small grocery shop for her husband.
In her capacity as a peer educator, Shiwakoti makes house calls on families, informing them about the current rules and regulations regarding foreign employment. When she makes these rounds, she runs into many women who want to work abroad, but many are afraid to say so in front of their family members because of the stigma attached to women migrant labourers.
“We need to tell families that while it’s true women going to the Gulf countries have been exploited, there are also many more who have faced no such problems. The problem actually is that most of the women leave the country without even possessing the minimum skills needed to work in a foreign country,” explains Shiwakoti.
“That the women, mostly unskilled, return with savings shows how much better they could have done if they only had the support from their families and the government,” says Bijaya Rai Shrestha, the director of Pourakhi. “It’s because of the stringent visa restrictions and lack of family support that the women have to resort to illegal and unsafe means of travel, as undocumented migrants.”
“I have met many returnees who have set up tea shops, farms and grocery stores after returning home,” says Shiwakoti.”The money they have made abroad has immensely transformed their lives.”
The money that Moti made in Kuwait has not just helped her set up a poultry business; she has been able to grow it by such an extent that her husband, Top Bahadur, who used to work in Qatar, has returned home to help her run the business.
Moti and Top Bahdur now own 500 chickens, and they have recently added 10 wild boars to their farm. They plan to extend their business even more, with the help of credit from the local farmers’ bank, to grow unseasonal vegetables and branch out into fishery as well.
“Before I left for Kuwait, I would have never thought about being this successful. The only options for me were household work and farm work on our small farm. Today, I call the shots in our family ventures and I don’t see a ceiling to our business’s growth,” says Moti.