KATHMANDU, Nepal — Migration in this country is omnipresent. Nearly everyone has a relative or a neighbor who works abroad, while the Department of Foreign Employment, based in the capital here, teems with job-seekers. Landlocked Nepal has a long history of labor exportation, but the scope of the country’s current migration boom is unprecedented: the Persian Gulf region alone lures more than 16,000 workers from Nepal each month.
In 131 countries around the world, Nepali workers help construct high-rises, greet hotel guests, farm livestock and rear children. They account for a staggering 7 percent — more than two million people — of Nepal’s total population.
This absent population in Nepal has created a ghost economy: its profitable workforce is at once nowhere and everywhere, changing Nepali society in core and lasting ways. This change has been especially true for the women left behind. While male outmigration has given female relatives more burdens to shoulder (95 percent of migrant workers are men), it has also helped to forge more matriarchal households, where new social arrangements have cast women in traditionally male roles, from agricultural work to money matters. It has led as well to a shift in reverence for daughters that had been reserved for sons, as younger women leave for jobs overseas and send money back home, too.
“In our community, women are always kept inside,” explained the wife of one migrant laborer in a 2011 academic case study. But “I learnt how to transplant rice and got to know the outside world. . . . I take these as positive changes.”
With Nepal’s unemployment rates as high as 46 percent, roughly a third of men aged 15 to 44 are working abroad. With few men around, women often become the financial heads of the home. Migrant remittances form a cornerstone of Nepal’s economy, making up at least a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. They fund the sales of properties and land plots, which are often overseen by female family members. More than half of Nepal’s families benefit from wages sent home.
“[My wife] advised me for the land and house,” recalled Sathi Paudel, who spent five years working for a Korean construction firm while his spouse brokered the construction of their new home on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
For older matriarchs, however, these conditions can be more challenging. Chato Maiya Tamang, whose eldest son works in Malaysia, runs a tea shop in the hills of Kakani, in central Nepal. She is happy that her son has found employment, but fears her own isolation. “Nowadays, everybody goes [abroad],” she said. “But I say, don’t go.”
Migrant salaries, however, can be a powerful motivator. Thuli Maya Tamang, a herder who has a granddaughter working in Dubai, has “no worries at all” about her family’s situation. “After all,” she explained, “she went to earn money.”
The granddaughter’s move to Dubai is reflective of a broader trend in the rise of the female migrant laborer. Over the past six years, the number of Nepali female workers worldwide has increased 239 percent. Until 1998, women had to obtain parental or spousal consent to go overseas, and female migration to the Persian Gulf was terminated from 1998 to 2010, after the well-publicized death of a Nepali maid in Kuwait. Domestic workers in the Gulf states must still be at least 30 years old. But younger women often migrate through unregulated channels, putting female workers at more risk for abuse. The leading cause of death among male workers from Nepal is heart failure; for Nepali women, it is suicide.
Yet, while migrant workers are often cited as casualties of global capitalism, the changing face of the labor market has also opened new opportunities for Nepali women, both at home and beyond. Alina (she prefers not to use her real name), who is 31, single and was raised in Bhaktapur, a medieval city in central Nepal, left a nursing career to come to New York, where she earns higher wages working in a small nail salon.
“I never painted nails in my whole life before coming here,” she said. As a Nepali woman abroad, “You learn everything by yourself . . . you’re not dependent on other people.” Alina has also dodged family pressures to marry, so far. “If I was back in my country, I would already have two children,” she said. She now sends money home to her parents and three younger siblings.
“It used to be only men who had access to better jobs and all the advantages,” said Ola Perczynska, program manager of Her Turn, a Kathmandu education and empowerment program that works with Nepali girls. But with greater numbers of women joining an increasingly transnational workforce, the country’s gender dynamics have experienced a shift. “Nepali families used to favor sons,” Perczynska said. “Nowadays they start appreciating daughters, too.”
Nil Maharjan contributed reporting to this article.
Ariel Sophia Bardi is a writer, researcher and photographer whose work looks at space and power in the Middle East and South Asia. She also works as a consultant in humanitarian and international development sectors. She has an M.A. from the University of Paris and a Ph.D. from Yale University. More of her work can be seen at www.arielsophiabardi.com.