KATHMANDU, Nepal (WOMENSENEWS)–Sapana Bishwokarma, 26, has no answer when asked about the father of the 2-year-old boy who plays beside her.
She says her body trembles with fear each time she recalls her son’s father. Tears trickle down her cheeks.
"I didn’t know that man very well," says Bishwokarma, who requested her name be changed. "He used to rape me as many times as he wanted, any given time of the day."
Bishwokarma, of Jhapa, a district in eastern Nepal, says she moved to Saudi Arabia four years ago to work as a nanny. She says an employment agent enticed her with the prospect of a good income.
She says she paid the agent about $700 to secure the job. To get around a government ban on working in the Gulf – lifted last year but in effect at the time – she traveled first to India.
Two men received her at the airport in Saudi Arabia and took her to the house where she would work. Instead of providing child care, as promised, Bishwokarma says she was forced to work as a maid. One month into the job, she says her employer’s unmarried son raped her, with the help of three other men.
"They were a family of three with a middle-aged father and two sons," she says. "I couldn’t even understand their language, and I was beaten up by the men."
She says that, eventually, all the men in the family raped her.
In addition to using physical force, she says the sons also drugged her. One of the employer’s sons would give her food when no one was in the house, and she’d become unconscious or sleepy after eating it. When she woke up, she would realize she had been raped.
She says she eventually got pregnant, so the elder son kicked her out and sent her back to Nepal without paying her wages.
She kept the story to herself for years, she says, and declined to use her real name because she fears that bringing her story into the media spotlight might affect her future.
‘Treat Us Like Animals’
Bishwokarma, who now works as a tailor to support her son and herself, says she doesn’t recommend any women go abroad for foreign employment.
"I went there to become financially independent," she says. "But for women, foreign employment isn’t what you think it to be. They treat us like animals, not humans."
Many Nepali women who leave the country for work return with stories of exploitation. Some recommend working at home instead, insisting that it’s more feasible than women realize. Others say they had good foreign work experiences, but emphasize the importance of getting the right job and knowing the language and laws before departing.
The Nepali government banned women from going to work in the Middle East in 1998 after the case of Kani Sherpa became public, says Dinesh Hari Adhikari, Ministry of Labor and Transportation secretary. Sherpa committed suicide after her employers in Kuwait physically and mentally tortured her.
The government lifted the ban last year and has established training centers to prepare migrant workers.
Statistics on the number of women who leave the country each year to work abroad vary because many women lack the proper documentation. It ranges from 67,000 to 83,000 women, depending on the source. The Foreign Employment Department estimates that 2.3 million women have left Nepal for work in the past 10 years, when the trend of leaving the country for work began.
Sushil Dhungana, president of the Foreign Nepali Workers Rescue Center, a nongovernmental organization that assists workers who have been exploited abroad, says that of the 67,000 women who went to the Middle East for employment in 2006, only 3,000 had proper documentation. They are the only ones who left the country legally and can seek help from the government if necessary.
He estimates that 90 percent of women who leave Nepal for foreign employment become victims of sexual violence. Out of 100 women who leave for foreign jobs, only five get the job and salary they were promised and 25 get something similar to it. Although 94 of 100 women present their certification of skill, only six of them get the visa according to their skills.
Some Positive Experiences
According to Pourakhi, a local nongovernmental organization for female migrant workers, 70,000 Nepali women work in Saudi Arabia; 30,000 in Kuwait; 14,000 in Israel; and 15,000 in Lebanon.
Kamala Sinkhada, 39, of Jhapa, recently returned from working in Dubai. Unlike Bishwokarma, she says things went well for her. She says women can make themselves less vulnerable to sexual exploitation by knowing the language, the laws and their rights in the foreign country. She also says the type of job is important.
"Such cases mostly happen when women work as domestic help or maids," she says. "I worked in a department store."
Sinkhada has been able to educate her children from her earnings in Dubai and says that her experience was so positive that she plans to find another job abroad.
"I will go [to work abroad] again," she says. "My husband will take care of the children in the meantime."
But sociologist Kumar Yatru, who has been analyzing the trend of foreign employment, says that the entire process of making women aware of foreign employment issues and their rights abroad is weak. He says that 16 percent of women who work abroad return with no income.
And because these women work as domestic helpers and lack legal documentation, he says they don’t get any assistance from the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, composed of government officials and representatives from the private sector, or the government itself.
The government has created mandatory training for women leaving for foreign employment and offers $10 as a cash incentive for its completion.
But Dhungana, of Foreign Nepali Workers Rescue Center, says that women rarely register for the training because they work abroad illegally. Moreover, he says that there are 53 training centers, but they are all clustered in Kathmandu, the capital, and are inaccessible to women in remote districts, who are the most likely to seek foreign employment. He says employment agencies cash in on this by charging women for fake training documents.
Nainkala Thapa of the National Women’s Commission, an organization for women created by the government, says that because of improper or a lack of predeparture orientations and skills trainings, some women have also been the targets of human trafficking. She also says that in some countries, there have been reports of discrimination against women based on their race and skin color.
Even though female migrant workers have been on the rise in Nepal in recent years, Saru Joshi, regional program coordinator of U.N. Women-Nepal, says that the trend hasn’t increased their socio-economic standing because of a lack of rights at home.
"In Nepal, women still don’t have property rights," she says. "So all the money they bring back after years of hard work goes into the custody of her husband or in-laws. At the end of the day, they’re always empty-handed."
She says the government has created policies to ensure women have equal rights with men, but that Nepal is still a patriarchal country so cultural and social traditions have limited the policies’ implementation.
"Therefore, the government should have concrete policies to govern the rights of women," Joshi says.
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Lochana Sharma reports for Global Press Institute’s Nepal News Desk. She covers stories ranging from the rights for women and people with disabilities to arts and entertainment.