No help at home for women migrants who come back with babiesWhen women migrants get pregnant out of wedlock, they are generally evicted from their destination countries and come back to stigma at home.
Benu returned home from Saudi Arabia on December 8 after a year and a half abroad. Her employer had ended her contract for her work as a housemaid and she had been forced to leave.
“I have committed a crime and I got punished,” said the 25-year-old.
Her crime was that she got pregnant.
In April 2018, a local broker had helped prepare false documents for Benu so she could fly to Saudi Arabia for work via Mumbai.
“I was sent to work as a housemaid for a family of six,” Benu told the Post. “I was happy to finally be able to help my family back home.”
Benu was paid Rs 30,000 a month.
While in Saudi Arabia, she met a Nepali man and got into a relationship. When she told her boyfriend about her pregnancy, he disappeared and she never heard from him again. Then, her employer discovered she was pregnant and she was told to leave.
“My employers told me that if I stayed there, the police would put me in jail,” said Benu, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym as she was afraid of being stigmatised. “Although I am in Nepal right now, I feel like I am in jail. I feel like I am a criminal. I am hiding from my family.”
Benu is currently living in a women’s crisis shelter in Kathmandu operated by Pourakhi, an NGO working for the rights of female migrant workers.
According to data from Pourakhi, among 1,010 female migrants who returned to Nepal between 2009 and 2014, 3.1 percent had gotten pregnant in the workplace. Among them, 50.1 percent were a consequence of rape or sexual abuse whereas 49.9 percent reported pregnancies from consensual sexual relationships.
Regardless of the reasons, there is deep stigma against sexual relations outside of marriage in many Middle Eastern governments. In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to have sexual relations outside of marriage. When these women are forced to leave the country or face legal action, they face further ostracisation back home in Nepal from their family and society, making it difficult for them to reintegrate into society.
“While prevailing patriarchal norms and skewed policies have traditionally stigmatised and associated female labour migration with sex work or equated with trafficking, women who return with a baby are doubly stigmatised since having one outside of wedlock is still a taboo in Nepali society,” said Manju Gurung, chairperson of Pourakhi.
Maya travelled to Kuwait eight years ago for work as a housemaid. She was sexually and physically abused by her employer and was deported back to Nepal penniless with a baby girl. When she tried to contact her family, they disowned her. Maya, who asked that she not be identified, is now living on her own and supports her daughter by working in a carpet factory.
Benu too has yet to inform her family back in Biratnagar of her whereabouts.
“I don’t know how to break the news of my pregnancy to my family. I am certain that they won’t accept me because I am a disgrace to them,” said Benu, who is eight months into her pregnancy.
In most cases, families don’t accept women who come back with babies, leaving them without emotional or financial support, said Gurung.
“Some even decide to go back overseas to work while others give their babies up for adoption,” she said.
Benu herself is conflicted about giving her baby up for adoption.
“At times, I feel that adoption is the best option since I don’t have enough money to support my child and I am too scared to face society and my family. I don’t know what to do,” she said.
When women choose to keep their babies, more problems can arise given Nepal’s discriminatory citizenship laws, said Sunita Basnet, co-author a 2019 research paper on workers’ rights published by Social Science Baha.
Under the Citizenship Act-2006, children born outside the country are not eligible for Nepali citizenship. The same law also prevents Nepali women from passing on citizenship to their children independent of who the biological father is.
Since 1998, the Nepal government has been vacillating on women migrating to foreign countries for work as domestic help on the grounds that women working in the informal sector are more prone to financial, physical and sexual abuses. There have been bans numerous times, but that has only led women workers to take illegal routes, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and abuse.
What this has meant is that many women migrants are working abroad illegally and are thus reluctant to seek help from the government. Hundreds of thousands of Nepali women are currently working outside of Nepal, primarily in Malaysia and the Middle East. It is estimated that 90 percent of female migrant workers are undocumented.
Regardless of whether the women have reached the destination countries legally or illegally, governments of both countries should seriously consider ways to protect them from exploitation, said Basnet.
“The governments of Nepal and the destination countries need to have bilateral agreements in place regarding the protection of women workers,” she said. “Destination countries too must provide legal protection to pregnant women and newborns, especially when the woman has been sexually exploited by her employers.”
Furthermore, women also miss the Department of Foreign Employment’s pre-departure orientation, which includes advice on sexual and reproductive health and the host country’s laws, as they take illegal routes.
Until the government can provide job opportunity, it will be impossible to stop these women from venturing out of the country.
“What the government can do immediately is to protect them from being exploited and help those who need reintegration and rehabilitation programmes so that they can live a dignified life,” said Basnet.
According to Rudra Devi Sharma, joint-secretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens, the government has proposed a programme to UN agencies and civil societies to start skill-oriented training for empowering female migrant returnees to ensure their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Sharma, however, said the budget for the programme is yet to be fixed.
“We have asked the Ministry of Finance to allocate the budget,” said Sharma. “The work is in the process.”