While different social forces drive women to migrate abroad for work, the most common reason they do is economic. Having few livelihood options, women often seek work opportunities elsewhere to improve their family’s economic conditions. Beyond fulfilling women’s economic needs, migration can also provide them with opportunities to escape deeply entrenched discrimination and gender inequalities, such as sexual and gender-based violence, non-recognition of women’s work, and inequality in wages and decent working opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions on movement have severely impacted the situation of migrant workers, exposing and compounding the economic, social, and structural inequalities they face. Women migrants also work primarily in less regulated or informal sectors, which means they have less access to social protection. As of July 15, 2020, a total of 208,473 labor approval permits were issued to women migrant workers.1 In total, 80 percent of these workers migrated to Malaysia and the Gulf region. The top destination countries for Nepali women, apart from India, are the United Arab Emirates (34%), Qatar (18%), Malaysia (10%), Jordan (9%), Cyprus (8%), Saudi Arabia (7%), Kuwait (6%), Turkey (2%) and Oman (2%). These figures only show documented movement of migrants. Data on migration through irregular channels, as well as the rates of migrants returning to Nepal after losing employment during the COVID-19 pandemic, remain elusive. India remains the main destination country for Nepali women, particularly women coming from Karnali and Sudurpaschim province. Many women take an irregular route by crossing the porous Nepal-India border to then travel on to other destination countries.
The emerging issues concerning the status of women migrants in the COVID-19 pandemic were addressed during two Gender in Humanitarian Action Task Team (GiHA-TT) meetings, which took place on September 15, 2020 and February 23, 2021. Multiple GiHA-TT members raised concerns about the continuing restrictions placed on migrant workers, instead of basing it on which destination country they can migrate to, their age, work sector, and language. Emphasis was placed on the need to increase migrants’ domestic employment opportunities and ensure their right to mobility through safe, orderly, and regular foreign employment, rather than by embracing a protectionist approach. a survey by the international organization for migration in 2020 found that undocumented women domestic migrant workers were the most-affected migrant population during the pandemic. Overall, women migrant workers have been pushed further into debt and poverty through dwindling employment opportunities and travel restrictions. A lack of identity documentation also prevents many women migrant workers from returning to Nepal. GiHA-TT members also reported that unmarried, pregnant returnee women migrant workers (RWMW) face stigma and hostilities from their families and communities because of their unmarried status and the nationality of their child´s father. This has forced them to stay in shelters instead of returning to their homes.