Urmila Arryal, the only woman minister in Nepal's new government, was passing through the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi when she spotted four young Nepali women huddled together in the transit lounge, looking utterly lost. Something about the little group caught her attention. When she began asking them questions, their story tumbled out. The four were heading to Kuwait to work as housemaids, despite a ban by the Nepal government. A tout had offered them high salaries as an incentive, and had then vanished with their upfront money.
Arryal holds the women, children and social welfare portfolio. With her intervention, the women, including a nursing mother, were taken to the Nepali Embassy in New Delhi, where arrangements were made to send them home.
Not everyone is this fortunate. In March 2006, Nita Chaulagain, 25, left her home in Jhapa district in eastern Nepal to look for employment in the capital, Kathmandu. Unskilled and virtually illiterate, Chaulagain immediately fell prey to a tout who promised to get her a well-paid job as a domestic help in Kuwait. From Kathmandu, she was first taken to Delhi and then to Kuwait via a tortuous route through Muscat and Abu Dhabi.
A month later, Chaulagain, heavily sedated, was on a Gulf Air flight back to Kathmandu. When the flight landed, she was still in her seat, groggy and disorientated. When the airport security personnel spotted her, she was unable to tell them anything, not even where she was going. An ambulance took her to Maiti Nepal, a prominent non-governmental organization in Nepal that works to prevent trafficking in women and children.
"She had lost her mental balance completely," says Bishwa Ram Khadka, director of Maiti Nepal. "She would scream, flail her arms, become abusive. Our doctors said she had become psychotic. She had also been sexually abused."
Less than a week after Chaulagain's arrival, the airport authorities sent Maiti Nepal another mentally disturbed woman. Shanta Niraula, 25, came from Nepalgunj town in midwestern Nepal. Her experience was an echo of Chaulagain's plight. She had also gone to Kuwait to work as a maid, had been physically as well as sexually abused, and had lost her mental balance.
"Kuwait is the latest hell hole for Nepali women," says Khadka. "On an average, every month we have four to five traumatized women returning from there and requiring treatment."
Kuwait first fell into disrepute as an overseas employment destination for Nepali women in 1998 when Kani Sherpa, a mother of four in her late 20s, died under mysterious circumstances while working there as a maid. Her family claims she was frequently assaulted and raped by her employer, and that when she tried to escape, she was thrown to her death from the top storey of the villa where she worked.
Shaken by the intense wave of criticism from human rights organizations, Nepal's government banned women from working as maids in the Gulf countries. However, driven by a communist insurgency that started in 1996, political instability, unemployment and poverty, hundreds of Nepali woman still illegally embark every year for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Bahrain and Oman.
They are lured by organized networks of brokers - spanning Nepal, India and the Gulf states - who are well aware of the dangers the women would be exposed to. Often, the touts prey on the women, taking exorbitant "fees" from them, transporting them to cities in India, and then disappearing with their money. In the worst cases, some touts sell the unsuspecting victims to Indian brothels.
"We receive six to seven appeals for help every day, either from the women or from their relatives," says Uma Tamang, a lawyer at Maiti Nepal's legal division. "We work with Nepali missions abroad and NGOs, like the Pravasi Nepali Network Parivar in Saudi Arabia, to rescue women in distress. But there's little we can do to bring the perpetrators to justice."
Most victims have no official documents on the basis of which their employers or the touts can be taken to court. Nor can they provide coherent information about where they were taken or who their employers and brokers were. Furthermore, to circumvent the Nepali government's ban, the touts first take the women to Indian metros like New Delhi and Mumbai, where the immigration authorities tend not to ask questions. Since Nepalis need no visa to go to India, the India route has become established for traffickers.
According to Nepal's Labor and Foreign Employment Promotion Department, which also deals with complaints by cheated workers, "Even the Nepal government has no records how many women have left. In the last financial year, there were no records of any woman having gone to Saudi Arabia through private channels. Yet, the Nepali Embassy in Riyadh informed us that there were about 30,000 Nepali women working there as housemaids. Many of them were in distress, and were living in a shelter for women operated by the Sri Lankan embassy. [The women] said that they were subjected to sexual molestation, underpayment, non-payment, excessive work, and meager food. Their woes were compounded by their unfamiliarity with the local language and the Islamic culture, with its restrictions imposed on women."
Uma Tamang has a sobering tale about the havoc that the unfamiliar Gulf ethos can play on unsuspecting Nepali women who go to the Gulf without a briefing on the cultural practices there.
In July 2005, Sangita Shrestha, 36, and mother of three, went to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. She had earlier worked in Israel - considered the best destination for domestic help and caregivers - and the liberal air there had hardly prepared her for the restrictive life in Riyadh. After one initial phone call following her departure, her family never heard from her again. Sangita's daughter came weeping to the Maiti Nepal office to urge them to find out what had happened to her mother.
Enquiries by the NGO revealed that Sangita had allegedly committed suicide. Her employer, and the broker in Mumbai (identified only as Taufiq), said that Sangita was unable to adjust to the closed Saudi society and had hung herself within a week of her arrival. Yet, for seven months as her body lay in the morgue, no one informed her next of kin. No compensation has so far been paid to them or steps taken to investigate her death.
(The names of some of the girls and women have been changed to protect their identities.)