Dovan Rai is a writer and researcher who holds a doctorate in computer science. Yet, when she travels to the US in May, she will require official permission from her family and her local ward before she is allowed to leave the country.
When she first heard of the Immigration Department’s proposed requirements for women under 40 travelling abroad, Rai was unable to comprehend them, only thinking of them as yet another bureaucratic hoop she had to jump through. But then, she was outraged.
“What could be more idiotic than this? In this age, we have to waste time on this?” Rai told The Record. “The government just wants to control us.”
At 37 years of age, this was the first time she felt that her expertise and years of study meant so little, she said.
“This is a psychological game. They [the government] just want to tell us that we are nothing without them. This is not about safety but rather, about imposing the state’s will on women,” said Rai.
A defining characteristic of the Nepali state has always been its paternalistic attitude towards women and their freedom, mobility and individual rights. Under the guise of ‘protecting’ women, numerous governments have come up with myriad laws and policies to limit the free movement of women, especially when it comes to going abroad.
Now, the Department of Immigration has proposed more insular conditions that will likely severely restrict Nepali women’s freedom of movement. The department is seeking to amend the Immigration Procedure 2008 to require Nepali women under 40 years leaving the country on a tourist visa to first gain permission from their families and the ward office. This new rule will only apply to women who are going to the Middle East for the first time on a ‘visit visa’ say immigration officials but there are conflicting accounts. They will also be required to purchase insurance of at least Rs 1.5 million and show proof of having exchanged at least $1,000 before being allowed to leave.
According to immigration officials, the proposal aims to prevent human trafficking while also making it easier for government authorities to help women when they are in trouble abroad.
“Many women have been stranded in foreign lands,” Ramesh KC, director-general of the Department of Immigration, told The Record. “Many women don’t even know the name of the country they are going to.”
According to KC, the proposal is currently with the Home Ministry, which will decide on the amendment within a week.
“There are both pros and cons to the amendment,” said KC. “Some women’s rights activists have objected to the proposal and have asked us not to introduce harsh provisions affecting women’s travel but these provisions are for the safety of vulnerable women.”
Social media was understandably upset with the proposed rules.
“The Nepal government is literally using victimized Nepali women as an excuse to further victimize Nepali women,” said journalist Kashish Das Shrestha on Twitter.
Prakriti Bhattarai Basnet, chairperson of the organisations Political Literacy for Women, compared the new regulations to Afghanistan under the Taliban.
“During Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women were only allowed to go out with men [from the family]. Today, the government is becoming Taliban and Nepal is becoming Afghanistan. My basic rights cannot be violated,” she said on Twitter.
The proposed amendments will bring Nepal one step closer to Saudi Arabia and its previous male guardianship laws. Up until 2018, women were not allowed to drive, travel, conduct official business, or undergo certain medical procedures without the presence of a male guardian, normally a father, brother, or husband. In 2018, Saudi Arabia relaxed its laws allowing women to drive and in 2019, went further by relaxing male guardianship laws on travel and employment. When the proposed amendment is approved, Nepal will become more restrictive than Saudi Arabia.
Earlier in January, the Home Ministry was also considering making it mandatory for all travellers to present a high school diploma and demonstrate that they could speak English. These requirements were dropped after much criticism, according to KC.
Nepal has a long history of taking temperamental decisions that are based more on paternalistic emotion than any logical reasoning. For decades, it has imposed restrictions on women migrating to the Middle East for domestic work, arguing that these women are often exploited by their employers.
Since the 1980s, the government has imposed — and lifted, only to reimpose — numerous restrictions on women travelling to the Gulf for work. The first Foreign Employment Act of 1985 required women to obtain “the consent of her guardian” before they were allowed to go abroad for employment. A 1998 amendment to the Act required “permission from His Majesty’s Government” in addition to permission from guardians, defined as husbands or fathers.
Since 2016, the Nepal government has not issued labour permits for domestic work in Malaysia and six countries in the Middle East. Yet, women continue to migrate abroad, often through third-country routes. Just recently, 161 Nepali women were found to have made their way to Kuwait for domestic work via Sri Lanka.
Women make up around 10 percent of those migrating abroad for work. According to the government’s Migration Report 2020, in the fiscal year 2018-19, of the 236,208 labour permits issued, just 20,578 were for women, and that too because the government decided to renew permits for women who had earlier received approval for work in the informal sector.
While it is true that migrants, especially domestic workers, are often exploited in the Middle East, rights activists have long argued that such restrictions don’t prevent abuse; rather, they push women to adopt dangerous illegal routes to their places of employment, leaving them even more at risk of abuse.
“They keep making the same mistake. Earlier, they set an age bar for female migrant workers. This puts them at great risk of being trafficked,” said Manju Gurung, chairperson of Pourakhi, a rights organisation for migrants. “This is the result of a misogynist mindset. They want to control women. The government simply does not know what kind of women go abroad. Not all people married and not everyone has supportive families.”
In 2012, despite restrictions on women’s labour migration, Sita Rai left for work in the Gulf via New Delhi, aided by agents. When she returned, Tribhuvan International Airport officials robbed and raped her while in custody. The incident made headlines across the country and launched the Occupy Baluwatar movement seeking to ensure women’s safety and rights.
Restrictions on women travelling abroad don’t just place them more at risk but are fundamentally against established rights and freedoms, say activists. Such restrictions contradict the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enumerates freedom of movement as an inalienable right, and the 2015 constitution, which states the same.
“This is against constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights,” said Rai, the feminist writer and computer scientist. “These provisions undermine the achievements Nepali women have collectively made as well as my own individual struggle.”
This time, the proposed requirements will not just apply to labour migrants but to all women travelling abroad, whether for business or pleasure. But for many women, the proposals are not just a violation of their individual rights but also an affirmation of the state’s patriarchal structure that still sees women as weak and vulnerable, requiring the protection of their husbands, fathers, and brothers.
This patriarchal structure comes to the fore every now and then, but many rights activists point out that Nepal has never been a country that treats men and women as equal, let alone gender minorities. Women are still not able to independently pass down citizenship to their children without first proving that the husband is dead or missing.
“This provision is unacceptable. I don’t even have words sufficient to condemn these objectionable provisions,” said Gurung. “By introducing these provisions, they push women to be non-citizens. Women don’t need their pity, and please, no attempt to control us.”
Bhadra Sharma contributed reporting.
Corrigendum: This article has been updated to add more specificity to whom the new immigration rules will apply.