illustration shows children and adults in an alley, with some of the children turning into a silhouette.

Invisible children: the struggle of Nepali mothers returning home

For many Nepali women laboring as domestic workers in Gulf countries, raising children from unwanted or unplanned pregnancies is a perpetual struggle. 

Nepal is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Nestled deep in the Himalayas, the landlocked country‌ is best known for its towering mountains, including Everest. Agriculture and tourism generate most of the jobs for the population of around 30 million people, but about 3 million of them work overseas.

Women are more than half of the country’s population, and thousands of them seek overseas employment as a ticket to a better life. But they sometimes return disillusioned with an unplanned child and learn that coming home is only the beginning of their suffering. Facing stigma and a form of statelessness, their children constitute an invisible population. 

Invisible kids in Nepal

“I realized I was pregnant... I had no one for help because I was already an undocumented worker.”

Sunita, 32, now lives in Bhaktapur, a neighboring district of the capital Kathmandu. She moved to Kuwait to save money and build a house back home. But working as an undocumented worker in the gulf country changed this path, as she gave birth to a daughter from unwanted sex with another migrant. 

When Sunita left her housemaid job and started living with her Nepali friend, also an undocumented worker, she met an Indian migrant laborer. She was looking forward to a better option under a legal working permit. This would have been possible with the help of that laborer.

“I became totally helpless. I was there to earn money to support my family, but I was trapped abroad,” Sunita said.

Returning home

Sunita returned in August 2020 when the Nepalese government arranged a flight for all migrant laborers trapped in Gulf countries during the covid pandemic, regardless of their legal status. Covid saved her; she is back home. But another struggle had begun.

Shakti, her daughter, was four years old, without a birth certificate as she was born in Kuwait, and couldn’t be registered in the embassy because her mother was an unregistered worker.

Shakti had just started attending nursery school a few months back.

“The school principal is threatening to suspend her from school if I can’t issue her birth certificate within a few months.”

Sunita can’t even provide a regular school lunch for her daughter. She doesn’t have regular employment but lives with her sister  and helps out with domestic work. Sometimes she lets her four-year-old work as a helper too at her sister’s house for daily meals.

“I attempted suicide twice, but for my daughter’s life, I had to stop thinking about it,” Sunita said.

On paper, Nepalese law does not withhold citizenship cards for returning children (from a Nepalese father), but in reality, government offices are strict when it comes to applications for children of single mothers demanding birth certificates, as in the past much public criticism was raised to make ‘citizenship policies strong’.

It is a difficult process and takes a long time to issue one.

Nepal’s Constitution 2015 (article 39) guarantees every child the right to receive a name, a birth certificate, and a country registration. Despite that, children whose fathers don’t acknowledge paternity are considered orphans, or what is known in the country as a child with no legal guardian. 

They face societal discrimination, Nepali society doesn’t recognize them as citizens, and they are not eligible for the benefits available to other children.

A stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Someone who has access to citizenship is not considered stateless, but states that put significant or unsurmountable barriers to accessing citizenship or the requirements for it (like birth registration), or who do not grant the protections of citizenship to certain people can be guilty of making people “de facto stateless.”

Children unable to access citizenship because of the migration history of their parents make up a significant portion of the world’s stateless population. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1949 is a General Assembly resolution that sets out the basic human rights enjoyed by everyone on earth, and many of its provisions are considered binding customary international law despite being a resolution and not a treaty. It guarantees everyone a right to legal personhood and citizenship, the latter in Article 15:

  1. “Everyone has the right to a nationality.
  2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

There is also a UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, from 1961. It guarantees any child born stateless access to citizenship and applies other safeguards to reduce statelessness. Nepal, however, is not a signatory. 

Without a birth certificate, they cannot be issued citizenship and a passport, they can’t apply for government jobs, and they can’t even open a bank account. They are not included in health services in hospitals

Without a birth certificate, they are essentually invisible to the government.

Layers of stigma

Millions of Nepalese working abroad contribute to their country’s economy, from paying taxes to the government to sending remittances to their families. According to a United Nations report, thousands of Nepali women work in the Middle East.  A 2018 survey of women migrants in the Middle East and Malaysia by Padam Simkhada, et al,  showed that these women face health issues related to exploitation at work, among these, pregnancy. 

Nearly a quarter (24.0%) of women had experienced health problems in their destination country. Many had suffered abuse at the workplace (40.9%), whilst ‘only’ 12 (1.2%) reported to have suffered work-related injuries. Around 9 % of respondents reported that they had mental health problems, followed by 11.1% having faced physical harm, and 30.8% who faced torture or maltreatment at the workplace; 3.1% migrant women were reported to have fallen pregnant in the workplace, half of whom (50.1%) as a consequence of rape/sexual abuse. A further 15 of the pregnant women (49.9%) reported consensual sexual relationships (a conduct strictly forbidden in Muslim countries).

Returning home often adds another layer of discrimination.

“My son and I were prohibited from touching the ritual items in my parents’ home during worship and other cultural functions, we were being treated as if we were a contaminant,” said Rupa.

Rupa lives with her four-year-old Rupesh, in the Salyan district of western Nepal. Rupesh just started school a few months ago.

He often questions why his father never picks him up from school. Rupa is usually speechless to answer this question. In her mind, a working single mother without a family support system must deal with the enormous barriers she faces every day to survive with her child.

“He is alone with me here. I must send my son to school with a neighbor and request them to bring him back every evening... Once, he went missing, and I found him sleeping on the street near his school." Rupa told Unbias the News. 

“After I returned to Nepal, I spent a few months in my parents’ house. My ex-husband had already divorced me. But the daily gossip from neighbors about my son and me bullied me. So, I left my parent’s house and started living in this small town,” said Rupa.

Rupa now works as a housemaid in the morning and runs a small fruit shop at a local market in the afternoon. This helps to pay her son’s school fee of 800 rupees (about $8) a month, along with other daily expenses. 

Rupa once applied for a form for Rupesh’s birth certificate at the local government in her parents’ village. But the local representatives refused to issue a birth certificate as she was married, or because she didn’t belong to the Salyan district. She was told to go to her ex-husband’s village.

However, Rupesh is not the son of her Nepalese ex-husband. Moreover, her ex-husband is not ready to recommend the birth certificate for Rupesh. While Rupesh is Rupa’s son, his father might be somewhere in the Gulf countries.

Unfortunately, Rupesh’s birth certificate couldn’t be issued in Rupa’s name only. She had promised to get a birth certificate for her son when he was admitted to the school as it is mandatory for admission. Now, she is planning to apply for a birth certificate from her local government. But a significant barrier is that she can’t apply to a local government in her parent’s village in Salyan District as per the legal barriers. Going to Kathmandu and processing a birth certificate is too bothersome and difficult for her, she shared.

Another layer of stigma is the isolation and discrimination that Rupesh, Rupa, and many others like them have faced in their family and society, she said.

In Gulf countries, getting pregnant and becoming a mother through an extramarital affair is lawfully prohibited. Meanwhile, in Nepal, becoming a mother in this way is not prohibited by law but is discouraged – the complexity of providing a birth certificate and citizenship card for children who were born through nonmarital relationships or rape creates a significant barrier.

History of exploitation

This issue has a history. For decades, recruitment agencies and agents exploited impoverished women in need. The brokers went into many illegal paths, including sending women to travel through India and going as far as faking documents for the workers, sometimes also sending underage girls to work abroad.

In 2010, Nepal’s employment ministry lifted a ban that was enforced in 1998 on the country’s women going to Gulf countries. The government introduced rules, which include that Nepalese embassies need to be involved and check that employers will provide insurance, accommodation, security, and a wage. They designed these rules to protect women. But because some women were desperately in need, exploitation through brokers continued. And children became part of this suffering.

Manju Gurung, human rights activist and co-founder of Pourakhi Nepal, says, “Nepal’s government should review the effects of foreign employment and take action against human traffickers/brokers.”

Gurung added that “foreign employment should be systematically regulated.” She suggests that the Nepalese government must start the reintegration of these undocumented children. Whether they were born in Gulf nations or Nepal, the government must take responsibility for the condition of returning Nepali workers.

Hope for change

AMKAS Nepal, is an organization that works to reintegrate returning migrant laborers. Even during the covid lockdown, these groups placed returnees in free shelters for months and provided skills training as a part of the reintegration process, said Shrestha.

One beneficiary is Saral, 14, living with his family in Dharan, a town in eastern Nepal. He was only seven months old when he returned from Kuwait with his mother after they were rescued by Pourakhi Nepal. 

Another returnee, Sarita, 43, eventually made a new life for herself after a difficult experience in Kuwait. “Five years living in the gulf were like five decades of sorrow.”

“During that period, I changed three houses as a housemaid.” She gave birth to the son of her then-partner, a migrant from Kashmir after an unwanted pregnancy.

“I couldn’t even go to the hospital or medical center for delivery,” she said.

“When I became a mother; I filed a case against my partner for abusing me. But the Kuwait police arrested me instead for working illegally in the country. I was in jail for three months. I was totally blank and I didn’t know any law and other rules and regulations.”

Sarita is now running a small business with her second husband who adopted her son and with whom she has another daughter. She was supported by Paurakhi Nepal, an NGO that provided shelter, education, food, and security.

Since then she has been volunteering for the organization, and her son Saral should be able to receive a citizenship card after four more years when he turns 18. Sarita is a role model for other survivors of human trafficking returning to Nepal. 

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