Conflict Alerts # 329, 18 February 2021
In the news
On 10 February, the Department of Immigration in Nepal proposed a new law wherein women under 40 years of age would have to seek consent from the family and the ward office to travel abroad on a visit visa. “This girls/women in this age group are at a higher risk of human trafficking and other abuses. The new rule is proposed for their protection,” said Tek Narayan Paudel, a spokesperson of the Department to Nepal daily Kathmandu Post. The proposal has triggered a widespread women’s protests which led the department, later in the week, to clarify that the provision was only applicable to those travelling alone for the first time to the Gulf or Africa.
The protest against the proposal now coincides with a larger demand for safeguards of the rights of the woman in the country. Since 8 February, hundreds have rallied in Kathmandu demanding the conviction of the perpetrators in Bhagirathi Bhatta's rape and her subsequent murder. The protest programme led by students of Padmakanya Campus was organised as part of the ongoing Brihat Nagarik Andolan, a campaign protesting against Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s House dissolution move.
Issues at large
First, the rationale behind the administration’s decision. The government’s protectionist approach denies women their right to earn. In 1985, the Foreign Employment Act prohibited recruiters from providing jobs to women without the consent of guardians. In 1988, the Act was amended to include permission from guardians as well as the government. The latest proposal adds to an existing series of legal restrictions on travel for women. Even after the clarification, it discounts women’s contribution to Nepal’s migrant-led-economy. The rationale of the administration to tighten the women trafficker’s network, turns a blind eye to the larger deplorable conditions of the Nepali migrant workers (across gender) in their workplace over the years, ranging from being underpaid to getting laid off illegally to even their death.
Second, deeply entrenched patriarchal society. The protest is a stark reminder of the patriarchy, the culture of impunity, rising rape cases and silent trafficking networks in the country. Nepal is still a highly patriarchal society where caste and class of both the victim and the perpetrators provide impunity from justice. It's widely reported that victims of sexual assault are being prevented from seeking legal action in the name of local "settlement" and "reconciliation" involving community elders. Similarly, it took a decade for Nepal to legally ban the menstrual huts but not the social practice. This entrenched patriarchal mindset of feminine inferiority makes state institutions hesitant to investigate cases of violence and in turn adopt a protectionist approach to control attacks on women. While all along, trafficking of women for various labours including prostitution have continued. According to the annual human trafficking report of the National Human Rights Commission for 2018-19, nearly 1.5 million Nepalis of which 15000 women are at the risk of trafficking.
Third, civil society pressure. Weak criminal investigations, attempts by officials to protect perpetrators and the politicization of rape cases have led the civil society groups, amid the political crises, to pressurise the government to act. The proposal has been the fallout. Since 2020, around 2,144 rape cases have been registered with the Nepal police and the judiciary convicts sexual assault perpetrators a prison term of seven to 25 years. The National Women Commission has remained defunct since 2017 and political leaders apathetic to women issues. Similarly, Nepal’s constitution, promulgated in 2015, has barred handing off death penalty making it difficult to prosecute convicts with harsh laws.
Travelling on visit visas probably makes women vulnerable to abuse. But in a larger duty of the State to protect, the authorities have blind-sided the reasons for which women migrate and missed the opportunity to make applications for an employment visa more transparent. In the past, the State’s protectionist approach has failed to yield expected results as women have continued to go abroad through illegal routes and face abuse while being traffickedd. The particular proposal increases the risk of incidents where sub-agents and traffickers could lure women more to trafficking and defeats the rationale of the State.