Financially free abroad, socially constrained at homeWomen migrants acquire expertise and financial independence abroad but on return, they find themselves trapped in a social order that does not value their talent.
Rojina Gurung knew exactly what she needed to do to alleviate her family’s financial insecurity. Interest on a loan that she and her husband had taken for her mother-in-law’s medical operations was piling up and her husband’s job as a bus driver did not provide an adequate income to both pay off the loan and provide for daily expenses. Although Gurung was self-employed as a tailor, the majority of her time was spent as a homemaker. So, in 2015, just before the earthquakes struck, Gurung decided to try her luck as a labour migrant in the United Arab Emirates.
In the UAE, Gurung worked as domestic help to a family of five, looking after three children along with cleaning and cooking. She earned around Rs30,000 per month, a salary that was enough to financially support her family back home and also save some money.
“For the first time in my life, I felt empowered and valued,” said 33-year-old Gurung. “But my husband asked me to return since our financial crisis was slowly subsiding.”
After working for two years in the UAE, Gurung voluntarily returned to Nepal in 2017, and helped her husband buy a taxi with the money she had saved. Her family is now secure financially but she still thinks about the financial autonomy she experienced in the UAE, where she was in charge of the money she was making.
Since returning to Nepal, she has gone back to being a full-time homemaker.
Although labour migration is a highly gendered process, with men accounting for a much larger proportion of migrants, there has recently been a significant increase in the number of labour permits obtained by women for employment abroad. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of work permits issued to women migrants increased by 106 percent.
While abroad, women migrants acquire skills and expertise, along with financial independence, but upon their return to Nepal, they find themselves trapped in a patriarchal social order that does not value their newly acquired talent nor assures their financial independence.
According to a 2019 UN report, out of 605 women migrant workers who returned home to five districts—Kailali, Kaski, Nawalparasi, Sindhupalchok and Jhapa—28.6 percent have not entered the labour market whereas 37.5 percent have gone back to subsistence farming. Only 34 percent are engaged in the labour market through self-employment, regular employment or by engaging in commercial agriculture.
Jeevan Baniya, one of the authors of the report, says that the global market for domestic labour has helped transform the unpaid household work that women always performed in Nepal into lucrative, productive work. But since the labour market for professional domestic workers is not well developed in Nepal, the majority of women who’ve gained experience or skills abroad are unable to find decent employment back home.
Apart from the limitations of the labour market, the report also states that social stigma continues to persist when it comes to domestic work. Gurung supported this conclusion, saying that she too had remained unemployed because domestic work is not respected in Nepali society.
“People look down on you if you decide to work as a maid,” said Gurung. “My husband thinks that working as a domestic worker abroad is fine, as you are paid well, but he doesn’t approve of me doing the same work here in Nepal.”
The UN study also found that among returnee women migrants who had stopped engaging in any income generating work, 49 percent blamed the gendered household division of roles where women are expected to indulge in care and household responsibilities while the men engage in income generation.
“No matter how independent they become while they are abroad, once they return home, the majority of women cannot get away from the patriarchal structure of Nepali society,” said Baniya.
When women do enter the labour market, they often have to do so by rejecting societal norms, or if they wish to engage in income-generating activities, they are more often self-employed.
“Migration has helped women like me gain a ‘newfound autonomy’ and bring new norms, skills and expertise back home,” said 35-year old Sarmila Tamang, who started a clothing shop in Ason after working at a coffee shop in the UAE for almost five years. “I don’t want to just stay at home. I have worked and will continue to work.”
Tamang represents the 10 percent of women migrant workers who’ve managed to successfully set up their own enterprise. However, Tamang acknowledges that it would have been difficult to set up her business without the support of her husband, who helped her get a loan from a cooperative.
While it is not easy for women migrants to start their own business since foreign employment does not necessarily lead to sufficient capital upon return, even those who consider getting loans from banks to set up their own enterprise face challenges due to the lack of any collateral.
“Women’s ownership of productive assets is low, which limits their access to financial markets as they are unable to provide any collateral,” said Baniya.
Women migrants on average saved or brought back Rs249,577 at the end of their most recent migration, according to the report. But only 10 percent of women said that they had invested in a business or in agriculture.
Efforts have thus been made by national, legal and civil bodies to provide employment opportunities for women migrants upon their return. For instance, the National Strategic Plan for Safe Foreign Employment (2015) has identified programmes related to reintegrating and skills enhancement training for migrant returnees while the Industrial Policy 2011 states that enterprises registered in a woman’s name get a 35 percent discount in the registration fee.
According to Gyanendra Poudel, spokesperson for the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens, the government has also proposed a programme to UN agencies and civil society organisations to start skill-oriented training for female migrant returnees in different parts of the country. However, the budget for the programme has yet to be fixed.
Despite the existence of such programmes, not many women are aware of such opportunities as such skill-oriented training programmes rarely reach all parts of the country, said Manju Gurung, chairperson of Pourakhi, an organisation that works for migrant rights.
“There is a lack of information and proper guidance to migrant workers regarding local job prospects,” said Gurung. “As a result, they end up unemployed.”
As for now, Rojina doesn’t have any plan to seek employment opportunities. However, she misses the autonomy having her own money brought her.
“Working abroad has made me realise the importance of being financially independent,” she said.