A new draft rule requiring all Nepali women under 40 years to get written consent from their family and local government office for travelling abroad is so absurd that when I first learned about it, I was convinced it was fake news.
Then protestors poured onto the streets. Domestic and international mainstream media began reporting on it. The whole thing felt like a bad dream, but it was totally real!
The draft rules were so outlandish and extraordinarily absurd that it even led The Guardian, a leading British daily, to insert the word “ridiculous” in the headline for the story. Clearly, even the editors couldn’t hold back on judging Nepal’s draft rule despite violating their own norms for reporting the news neutrally.
Immigration officials have been quick to respond that these rules are only a draft, and, if enacted, would apply only to vulnerable women.
Where do such absurd and outrageous rules, even if just a draft, come from? The story in this story isn’t just in the ridiculousness of the draft rules but the darker realities lurking below them.
Long before, women travelling abroad were routinely subjected to humiliating questions about why and with whom they were travelling, or how they could afford to do so. Things were already ‘ridiculous’ a long time ago. The draft rules, if enacted, will make the informal formal, plus a whole lot more draconian.
Through the proposed rules, the government was attempting to respond to Nepal’s human trafficking crisis. The National Human Rights Commission estimated that in 2018 approximately 35,000 people, which included 15,000 women and 5,000 girls, were trafficked primarily for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labor and organ removal.
Although human traffickers typically target girls and women from rural areas with limited economic opportunities, recent studies indicate that it has now spread to all districts. A few years ago, only half the districts appeared to have been affected.
Human trafficking isn’t limited to females. In Nepal’s case, male and transnational labor are an equally large group of trafficking victims, exacerbated in part by the rigid rules for outbound labor and the absence of safeguards.
The 2020 trafficking report by the United States found that Nepal had made significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. It had, for instance, recently ratified the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons and previously the UN Anti-Trafficking-in-Persons Bureau Protocol. But Nepal still needs to do significantly more on building its institutional, legal, and law-enforcement capabilities to profile trafficking, enhance prevention, prosecution, and protection. Nepal remains far from meeting the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
Many Nepali non-governmental organizations work alongside the government, supplementing efforts on prevention, identification, rescue, and prosecution, in addition to providing victims with shelter and reintegration support. Working out of makeshift tin sheds in border crossings, often without adequate financial support, the commitment of these NGOs is an example of civil participation in the national effort to end human trafficking.
But Nepal’s civil society must also do more to deepen its engagement in reducing both internal and transnational human trafficking.
At its core, human trafficking emerges from the failure to provide Nepali men and women adequate and meaningful economic opportunities. While government policy and intervention are critical to addressing these challenges, there is an important role for civilian society in building and mobilizing the pressure for change.
The failure to provide opportunities, particularly for vulnerable communities, to the extent that it forces or tricks someone into being trafficked, is more a statement about our social failure than the government’s. Our economy thrives solely, and only, because we force millions of our men and women to sell their labor—and often their bodies—overseas: could there be any bigger national shame?
The “ridiculous” tragedy in the draft rules is that it unfairly requires written consent for overseas travel only from women. The real tragedy was that it didn’t require that from all Nepalis. It should have asked all Nepalis—men, women, old, young, everyone—to have written consent from families and local government for overseas travel.
As civil society we must all do more to acknowledge the deepening crisis of human trafficking. Absurd rules are not the answer. A meaning answer will only come when each one of us feels a direct sense of responsibility every time a Nepali becomes a victim of human trafficking.