The devastating Nepal earthquake of 2015 and later the Covid-19 pandemic had something in common: both likely saw an increase in the migration of Nepali sex workers.
Some did so as a result of trafficking or forced migration, others chose sex work or the entertainment industry on a voluntary basis - there’s no data to tell us the extent of this migration.
That policymakers don’t know the difference means both groups will continue to face harassment, torture, exploitation and discrimination. Without accurate data, the government is unable to protect them.
Many desperate Nepali women seek a global market for their labor to enable them to send money back to financially struggling family members, in what has been dubbed the “feminization of poverty”.
Of the more than 200,000 labor approval permits issued to women migrant workers in Nepal at July 2020, an overwhelming number – about 80 percent -- were for migration to Malaysia and the Gulf region. There is no exact data about women who migrate to India - it has an open border with Nepal, requiring neither a visa nor a passport for entry. The government also lacks proper data on women workers who migrate informally or unofficially to the other countries, especially the Gulf countries.
Concerned about trafficking, abuse and sexual exploitation, the Government of Nepal has gradually imposed several restrictive measures on women labor migrants.
Up until 1997, Nepali law required women to get the consent of their parents, husbands or other close relatives to seek foreign employment. Women could then make their own decisions to travel for work, but it was short lived: in 1998 the Government of Nepal banned all foreign employment for women after the death of a Nepali women migrant in Qatar, killed after a sexual assault. Instead of pushing Qatar to investigate the murder, the government created the narrative that women needed to be prevented from employment abroad as they were vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
The ban on women seeking employment abroad was lifted in November 2000, except in the Gulf countries. In the face of criticism from civil rights organisations pointing out women were travelling to the Gulf countries using illegal and unofficial routes, the government removed the ban in 2003. From 2000-2003 then, women’s mobility for foreign employment was completely restricted. In 2005, the government restricted women’s migration to Malaysia by imposing various conditions which were later lifted in 2007. Again in 2015 and 2017, women migrant workers under the age of 24 years were restricted from seeking employment in the Gulf countries.
All of this has proven ineffective in controlling trafficking and protecting women from exploitation. In fact, the protectionist restrictions and regulations imposed have tended to push women to migrate through unofficial channels -- undocumented and with greater vulnerability. They have become more susceptible to coercion, fraud and abuse.
Policymakers and civil society organisations continue to perceive sex workers as victims of trafficking, and the legal framework of human trafficking is mostly focused on sexual exploitation and prostitution.
In the case of trafficking, victims prefer not to lodge complaints or come forward as witnesses because they are dependent on their traffickers for work and housing. Some are pushed into sex work after being forced to migrate to cities because of chronic poverty and unemployment. They fall for false work promises by relatives and friends but are eventually forced to take up sex work for survival. These victims of trafficking are reluctant to disclose their identity or seek justice because they fear social stigma.
But for women who choose sex work, the response remains focused on rescue and providing alternative employment. The refusal to accept the sex worker’s profession as labor means they are limited in accessing justice and claiming violation of labor rights or seeking redressal for abuse and exploitation.The police do not believe a sex worker can be raped and treat them as criminals. Which is why sex workers seek decriminalisation of sex work and argue they should be free to choose their profession.
The Government of Nepal’s restrictions to women migrant workers follows a protectionist approach, violates their rights as workers and constrains their right to mobility. It raises questions about the government’s commitment to the Constitution of Nepal, regognizing the right to employment and the right to live with dignity as well as to international human rights commitments such as for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It also shows the patriarchal mindset of the government and Nepali society in treating women differently and as a vulnerable group through control mechanisms, rather than empowering them and opening the way for them to seek justice and equality. A strategic and coordinated effort is necessary to protect the labour rights of women migrant sex workers and to prevent their trafficking.
(Neetu Pokharel is as a Women Rights Activist in Nepal. She is a fellow of Calcutta Research Group (CRG). Under CRG fellowship, Neetu conducted research on ‘Statelessness and the plight of women in Nepal’ and is affiliated with an NGO, Inclusive Step for Change in Nepal)