Amita* knew she had to escape. After five months of being assaulted, starved and being forced to work for 20 hours a day as a domestic maid in a suburban house in Kuwait, the 45-year old from Nepal seized her chance. While the household slept, she climbed out of a downstairs bathroom window and fled.
Amita managed to find the Nepali embassy, hoping that staff there would assure her safety and help send her home to Kathmandu.
“They said there were many ladies like me who had left their employer’s house and they are reluctant to pay [for a plane ticket],” she says. “Instead, they told me to go to jail.”
Staff advised Amita that her only option was to surrender to the police for absconding from her employment contract. After serving an 11-day prison term, she finally got her flight: the authorities deported her at the Kuwaiti government’s expense.
All Gulf countries employ migrant domestic workers under the “Kafala” system, where their mobility is controlled by their employer, who hold their passport and legal control over their ability to change employment or leave the country.
But while this system is problematic, a policy introduced by the Nepali government in 2017 has compounded issues faced by Nepali migrant women.
Protection or discrimination?
Under pressure to take action to protect workers travelling abroad for employment, the Nepali government issued an order banning Nepali citizens from travelling to the Gulf for jobs as domestic workers.
“[The 2017] ban on Nepalese citizens to work as domestic workers in the Gulf, particularly the females, is solely to protect [them from] illegal trafficking and violence,” a spokesperson from the Nepalese labour department told the Guardian. “Regarding the assistance of those citizens … [the] government is very concerned regarding their safety and [to] surely help them return back. However, at times there may be some delay to manage the legal procedures.”
But activists refute this. They say that far from protecting Nepali domestic workers from exploitation and abuse, the embargo discriminates against women – and indeed actively endangers them – as the main group seeking domestic work.
A third of Nepalis are estimated to live on incomes of $3 a day (£2.30) or less, making Nepal one of the world’s poorest countries. For Nepali women desperate to earn, the Gulf remains a favourite destination for jobs, where salaries for domestic workers can be around $400 per month.