Protection and Paternalism: Narratives of Nepali Women Migrants and the Gender Politics of Discriminatory Labour Migration Policy.

Author:Grossman-Thompson, Barbara


This article considers the current age and gender discriminatory migration laws in Nepal in their historical and socio-cultural context. Drawing on eight months of fieldwork and data collected from both migrants and migration policymakers I ask, What are the consequences of discriminatory laws on young Nepali women's migration experiences? And why do gender and age discriminatory laws and policies persist in light of evidence that they may actually endanger migrants? I posit that historically dominant Hindu gender norms provide the basis for the paternalistic migration laws currently in place. I argue that age and gender discriminatory migration policies are rooted in patriarchal concern for women's ijaat (social honour) and sexual purity. The result of discriminatory law is not a reduction in migration but an increase in irregular and illegal migration that exacerbates women labour migrants' vulnerability to a variety of abuses. I conclude that examining discriminatory migration laws with an intersectional lens raises interesting possibilities for theorizing how and why these ineffectual laws persist.


Cet article se penche sur la legislation discriminatoire actuelle en matiere de migration concernant l'age et le sexe au Nepal et son contexte historique ainsi que socioculturel. En faisant appel aux donnees de sondage et de nature ethnographique provenant des migrants ainsi que des responsables en matiere de politique migratoire, je considere en premier lieu: quelles sont les consequences des lois discriminatoires sur les migrantes nepalaises jeunes? Et quelles sont les raisons pour lesquelles des lois discriminatoires concernant l'age et le sexe persistent encore a la lumiere des indications demontrant que ces lois risquent en fait de mettre en danger les migrants? J'estime que le sexe hindou dominant sur le plan historique fournit la base sur les lois paternalistes actuelles, et que les lois discriminatoires concernant l'age et le sexe sont ancrees dans un ordre patriarcal du ijaat (l'honneur social) et de purete sexuelle chez les femmes. Le resultat est l'augmentation de la migration illegale et irreguliere, ce qui amplifie la vulnerabilite ainsi que divers abus de femmes migrantes. Je conclus sur une discussion portant sur la maniere dont une politique plus adaptee pourrait repondre a la legislation migratoire actuelle qui ne prend pas en compte la complexite du processus decisionnaire.


In response to limited economic opportunities in Nepal, migrating abroad for labour has become a common livelihood strategy. In 2014, remittances sent from Nepalis working overseas accounted for over a quarter of Nepal's GDP. (2) While the majority of overseas workers are men, the number of Nepali women migrating abroad has steadily increased. In an attempt to "protect" Nepali women from exploitation abroad, the state has implemented gender discriminatory migration laws, which restrict women under thirty from leaving the country to work as domestic labourers in Gulf countries. (3) Instead of curbing migration, these laws have pushed women's migration, both to the Gulf and other destinations, into more precarious and dangerous migration channels.

This article considers the current age and gender discriminatory migration laws in Nepal in their historical and socio-cultural context. Drawing on eight months of fieldwork and data collected from both migrants and migration policymakers, I attempt to answer three questions:

  1. What are the socio-cultural and political antecedents that contextualize contemporary gender and age discriminatory migration laws in Nepal?

  2. What are the consequences of discriminatory laws on young Nepali women's migration experiences?

  3. Why do gender and age discriminatory laws and policies persist in light of evidence that they may actually endanger migrants?


Nepal has a population of about 30 million and was, until 2008, ruled as a Hindu kingdom. In 2008, at the end of over a decade (1996-2006) of civil war between Maoist guerrillas and the monarchy, Maoists were swept into power and in short order declared Nepal a secular, democratic republic. Although Nepal is a comparatively small country next to its large neighbours India and China, it is exceptionally diverse. The populace is stratified along lines of caste, class, ethnicity, religion, mother tongue, and extreme geographic difference. Historically, high-caste Hindus living in the central mid-hills of Nepal have exerted political, economic, and social dominance over low-caste and ethnic minority populations. The dominance of high-caste hill Hindus (HCHH) lingers to this day and is evident in the ongoing civil unrest that has intermittently punctuated the political landscape from 2006 onwards. Exacerbating Nepal's troubled polity is the socioeconomic condition of many Nepalis. Nepal is considered a least-developed country, and a majority of its population practise subsistence agriculture as their primary livelihood. (4)

Out-migration has a long and storied history in Nepal, most prominently in the form of young Nepali men leaving to work in foreign armies as Gurkha soldiers. (5) In the last thirty years, a chronically depressed economy and a decade of conflict have precipitated a mass exodus of working-age Nepalis from the rural hinterlands into cities and abroad. (6) Walking in any major city in Nepal, one is confronted with countless signs advertising opportunities to work or study abroad. (7) The overwhelming message on billboard after billboard is that economic opportunities lie outside of Nepal. (8) There is a deep and abiding feeling amongst young Nepalis that working abroad is the only way to earn a decent salary and support their families. (9) Going abroad and remitting has become a normative livelihood strategy and is evidenced in the profound dependence of many families on remitted wages. In 2014, remittances from workers overseas accounted for 29 per cent of the GDP. (10) This astounding figure makes Nepal second in the world for remittances as percentage of GDP.

According to a 2011 World Bank census, approximately 2.1 million Nepalis (over 7 per cent of the population) are working overseas. (11) Reading the many government and NGO reports on migration, an interesting pattern emerges; there are few data on women migrants. The common refrain is that the data that do exist are unquestionably inaccurate. (12) According to Nepal's Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE), less than 4 per cent of labour permits between 2006 and 2013 were issued to women. (13) In 2013/2014 the DoFE granted 29,152 permits to women. (14) Yet the DoFE and every other organization working on migration estimates that the actual number of women departing each year is considerably higher. (15) The discrepancy comes from the fact that many women migrate illegally. Women who do migrate legally tend to be more affluent, work in higher-tier jobs such as nursing, and migrate to more "desirable" destinations like the United Kingdom and Australia. (16) In short, women with the financial resources and educational background to easily navigate official migration channels use them. However, women who migrate illegally are generally from lower socio-economic backgrounds and are less likely to have the literacy, money, and social capital necessary to facilitate formal emigration. Women who migrate illegally often perform domestic labour such as child care or elder care, food service work, or janitorial services while abroad.

Poor Nepalis are especially likely to migrate to the Middle East. In Nepal, law states that women under thirty cannot migrate to the Gulf countries (Dubai, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia), which are the primary destinations for poor Nepali migrants, both male and female. These discriminatory laws were ostensibly passed to protect women, as the DoFE states explicitly: "The intent [of the ban] is to protect women from many risks, including long working hours, sexual violence, physical abuse and economic exploitation." (17)

The logic of the ban is that simply forbidding women to go abroad will stop them, thus protecting them from dangerous work conditions. Instead, the law has put women at greater risk. Women in economic need continue to migrate, only now they must do so through informal channels that have few safety nets and little recourse, should the situation prove exploitative or dangerous. (18) There is mounting evidence that age and gender discriminatory laws are ineffectual and counterproductive. (19) Yet they remain. Why?

Male labour migrants face manifold challenges abroad. Images of coffins returning from Gulf states bearing the bodies of young men are frequently plastered across Nepali newspapers. Despite the clear empirical evidence of dangerous working conditions, the state has yet to pass laws "protecting" male migrants. This failure to pass laws addressing the dangers faced by Nepali men working abroad suggests that bans on women's labour migration to the Gulf and other states is not just about their protection. In the following sections I explore the socio-cultural underpinnings of gender discriminatory laws and suggest that historically dominant gender ideologies keep these laws in place, despite clear evidence of their failure to protect women.


This article is based on data collected through eight months of participant observation at an NGO founded by and providing programming for returned migrant women, as well as surveys administered to returned and departing women migrants. The variety of sources provides a triangulation of sorts, which cross-verifies--from the perspective of migrants, policy advocates, and policymakers--the challenges women migrants encounter. (20) The mixed-methods approach employed here is particularly trenchant for a study of migration in Nepal, as previous treatments have tended to focus on modelling migration flows (21) rather than the...

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