A law proposed in Nepal will ban women from travelling abroad without permission from their families and local government officials.

The restriction has been suggested by the Department of Immigration, which argued that it would prevent women from becoming victims of human trafficking, and make it easier for the government to help women in trouble abroad.

The law has been heavily criticised and labelled unconstitutional by Nepali women, with hundreds marching in protest in Kathmandu. There is some confusion as to who the proposed law would apply to, even within the Department of Immigration. Teknaraan Paudel, the director, confirmed in an interview with The Republic that every female under 40 would need a permission letter. However, others in the department have said that permission would be required “only for women who are travelling alone on a visit visa for the first time in risky countries[,] such as the Gulf and African countries[,] and for those who do not even have general information about their travels.”  The department has since said in response to criticism that it was yet to be finalised, and that paperwork would only be required by women travelling to “high risk” countries.

The proposal has attracted widespread condemnation from activists. Hima Bista, executive director at Women Lead Nepal commented: “What is extremely dangerous is the thought process behind it. The very fact that a policymaker is thinking about drafting this law restricting the movement of adult girls and women tells us how deep-rooted the patriarchal mindset is.”

Prakriti Bhattarai Basnet, chairperson of Political Literacy for Women, compared  the new regulations to Afghanistan under the Taliban. “During Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women were only allowed to go out with men [from the family]. Today, the government is becoming Taliban and Nepal is becoming Afghanistan. My basic rights cannot be violated.”

Nepal has had a convoluted history  with women’s rights. A traditionally highly patriarchal society, since the 1980s the government has lifted and re-imposed various restrictions on women’s freedoms. The Foreign Employment Act of 1985 required a woman to obtain “the consent of her guardian” before she could go abroad for employment. Further “permission from his Majesty’s Government” was required in a 1998 amendment.

However, human trafficking is a huge issue. The Nepal’s Human Rights Commission estimated that in 2018 about 35,000 people were the victims of trafficking, including 15,000 women and 5000 girls.

This law is the latest in a series of attempts over the past years to combat exploitation through restrictions. In 2017, for example, the government banned Nepali citizens from working as domestic labourers in the Gulf, a restriction that specifically targeted women, who make up the majority of the domestic workforce. Defended by the government as a measure to protect them, activists argue that it instead discriminates against women, will fail to prevent workers from travelling, and only encourages more dangerous routes being taken instead. It is also in violation of articles 13 and 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Nepal subscribes to, that guarantee the right of freedom of movement and asylum.

The improvement of women’s rights in Nepal is an ongoing process. As one of the poorest countries in the world, challenges to both genders regarding resources and education are enforced against women by traditional patriarchal systems. Free legal aid was made available to women by the government through the Legal Aid Act of 1997, due to the growing inequality and violence towards them, although the disenfranchisement they face has made accessing it difficult. Legal provisions have improved over the last few decades. The equality of men and women has been stated in the constitution as a fundamental right, and The Nepal Treaty Act of 1990 certified  that international human rights provisions would be given priority over domestic laws if they came into conflict. 

The recent ratification in Nepal of the UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Person was also a recent improvement, and arguably a more constructive policy move than the freedom-limiting current agenda. Rather than introducing patriarchal restrictions that push women to follow illegal and dangerous routes to places of employment, activists have put forth many alternatives. These include improvements in government employment regulations, regulated recruitment agencies, official cooperation with key destination countries to put protections in place, and effective responses in providing protection services to victims of abuse. The Nepali government needs to bring women to the table at which they can address the issue, rather than  treating them like second-class citizens.

Jen Jackson

Jen Jackson reads Ancient and Modern History at Christ Church. She is a Current Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue.