Sumitra was 16 years old when she traveled from her remote rural village in Nepal to the three million strong capital of Kathmandu to earn a better income. Unskilled and largely uneducated, she went to work in a carpet factory laboring for long hours and little pay. Soon she met a coworker a year younger than her and life started looking up.
Nepal is a culture where parents have a strong say in marriage, often arranging the most suitable partner for their children, causing deep guilt to set in when parents disapprove; which is exactly what Sumitra’s parents did. But being young and in love, they decided to get married anyway. Eventually they had two beautiful children, living a happy life, but struggling to take care of the family. With the opportunity to make more money overseas, they agreed that her husband should apply for manual labor work in Qatar.
Migrant Temptations and Challenges
For young Nepalis, working overseas is very tempting. It’s an income they couldn’t dream of in Nepal, though still low by most standards. In a survey of Nepalis returning home from Qatar after working abroad, the pre-Qatar median earnings were $109 per month. In 2014, Qatar nationals earned an average income of over $11,000 per month but the median income of migrant workers was $326. However, that left enough money to afford living in the foreign country and send back more than they could earn at home. The average amount sent back to their families was $197.
For many westerners, the idea of leaving behind your family for a year would be unthinkable. But for Nepali families, work abroad can last a decade with visits home every few years. Like many work visa programs, there are no options for families to visit. Nepali men seek work as laborers and women often apply for domestic servant roles. For men like Sumitra’s husband, working in Qatar usually means building for the 2022 World Cup stadium which has been controversial for its poor treatment of workers. Every year a half million Nepalis leave their families for this type of work, usually in Qatar and Malaysia, reaching just under 20 percent of the total population. Those remittances home account for 30 percent of Nepal’s GDP.
Problems begin early in the work abroad process with recruiters charging exorbitant fees, often incurring debts that Nepalis live with the rest of their lives. Nepal’s government has tried changing this by forcing foreign companies to pay the cost of airfare and work visas, as well as capping agent fees at 10,000 Nepali rupees ($99). However, an Amnesty International report could not find a single migrant worker that had not paid those costs themselves.
Men working in manual labor confront passport confiscation, but suffer challenges like poor safety standards, long hours, and shoddy living quarters shared with other migrant workers. Though the Nepal government has been trying to crack down on limited safety standards and health care access, in total 5,000 Nepalis have died while working abroad since 2008. Families of those victims are forced to pay transportation costs and seldom able to afford special arrangements, return the bodies home unceremoniously, sharing space with the luggage in baggage claim in Nepal's only international airport in Kathmandu.
Women seeking domestic work face the prospect of ending up trafficked in the sex trade.Those in domestic roles too often suffer physical and sexual abuse, with passport confiscation keeping them from speaking out and little help in foreign countries when they do. In 2014, a temporary ban was placed on women under 30 traveling to Gulf states to prevent victimization, which turned out being harmful to desperate women seeking more dangerous alternative channels to work abroad, typically with recruiters moving them overseas through India where Nepalis can travel without a visa. In 2016 Nepal lifted the ban after working with Gulf states to create stronger protections, though little has changed.
The Women Left Behind
Sumitra’s husband sent money home regularly and they spoke to each other as often as they could. Soon, the money stopped coming as frequently and he stopped returning her calls as fast as he used to. Then the money stopped altogether. Three years went by with little contact, but Sumitra never complained. She just assumed he was having a hard time getting by in Qatar. Then one day, after three years away her husband spontaneously came back. Not only had her feelings changed by then but acted differently. She tried talking to him but he just ignored her pleas to reconnect.
In Nepal’s patriarchal society, the burdens tend to fall more on women than men. Widows are considered “unlucky” and divorced women are not valued as much for long-term relationships. A study on marriage in migrant worker households found that 36 percent of husbands that had wives working abroad had remarried, contrasted with just 2 percent of wives with husbands working. For women, there is a social disincentive to divorce since their reduced value to other men creates burdens in a culture rife with social stigmatization. With their partner away, silent sufferers like Sumitra face increased depression, suicide risk, anxiety and a host of other psychosocial challenges.
Three months after he came back, a friend of Sumitra came across his secret and told her the devastating truth…her husband was hiding another wife, also living in Kathmandu.
She was crushed at first, but then pulled herself together and got some legal help. By law she was entitled to a portion of his income, so she took him to court and won a judgement against her husband to pay 50 percent of his income in child support. It didn’t take long before her ex-husband and his new wife ran off to India and she lost all contact.
Sumitra spends her days working in the carpet factory making around $90 for every carpet, each one taking a couple of months to complete. Her wish is to educate her children. She wants her daughter to be “educated and strong enough to fight against the challenges that come her way,” and her son to be “educated so that he becomes well-mannered and respectful of women.” Sumitra said of her ex-husband, “I don’t want to chase after him anymore because he doesn’t deserve our love.”
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