No husband, no home: Migrant wives struggle in Nepal

Sabita Danwar was washing dishes at the hotel where she works when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April. Her first thought was for the safety of her two sons on the other side of Kathmandu. Her second was to try to call her husband, much further away in Dubai.

After several hours battling through streets full of panic-stricken survivors, she finally reached her boys. But when she tried to call her husband to tell him they were all still alive, she couldn’t: the phone lines were jammed.

Danwar’s husband left Nepal two years ago in search of work. The family secured loans to pay for his travel. They borrowed more money to build a house, confident that his remittances would enable them to pay it all back.

“With my husband in Dubai and a regular income, we really thought we would be fine,” Danwar told IRIN.

Unfortunately, their house was in the village of Thailchok in Sindhupalchok, one of the districts hit hardest by the earthquake. Their home, along with everything else the family had worked so hard to build, is now a useless pile of rubble.

“Our house is gone, our cow sheds are gone, our grains are gone, now we have nothing,” Danwar said.

Women play role of men

More than 2,500 people are confirmed dead in Sindhupalchok, and up to 90 percent of the houses in the district have been destroyed.

The room Danwar and her two sons had been renting to allow her to work in Kathmandu is too badly damaged to be safe to live in any longer. Like hundreds of thousands of Nepalis, they have been forced to eke out an existence in one of the many tent camps in the capital. They huddle together under the shelter of an orange tarpaulin, their dreams shattered.

“The women staying in temporary camps are vulnerable to abuse, disease and neglect and have no emotional or moral support—most have to take care of their children and aging in-laws,” Manju Gurung, who heads Pourakhi, an NGO that helps migrant workers, told IRIN.

“These are (effectively) single women in Nepal. Their husbands are stuck working abroad and the women have to play the role of men.”

More than 2.2 million Nepalis work overseas, the vast majority of them men. Their combined remittances totalled $4 billion last year, accounting for more than 20 percent of Nepal’s GDP (The World Bank puts the figure even higher at $5.9 billion in 2014 or roughly 29 percent GDP). 

Benju Rai’s husband works in a factory in Malaysia. “Coming back means he will lose his daily wage, which is more important to us now than ever,” she said.

Rai’s house in Mahadevsthan village, east of Kathmandu, was also built using money borrowed on the strength of her husband’s expat pay packet. The earthquake destroyed it too.

Saddled with debt

“One way the government and financial institutions can help (families of migrant workers) is by lowering the transaction fees (on money transfers from abroad) or waiving them,” Pravina Gurung, Nepal programme coordinator for labour migration and development at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told IRIN.

Western Union has already heeded the call, announcing it will waive transaction fees for money sent to Nepal.

Official banks here will not provide loans to migrant workers without proper paperwork and collateral, so many people, like Rai and Danwar, are forced to access informal channels – private lenders who charge interest rates as high as 35 percent and are unlikely to waive them, even in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.

“If the government announces a scheme to waive interests or loans, we will not qualify,” Rai acknowledged. She, and so many others like her, are now homeless and saddled with debts they only have a chance of repaying if their husbands stay abroad, rather than returning to help.

Gender discrimination

Without their menfolk, the wives of migrant workers are at a distinct disadvantage.

At lunchtime in a makeshift camp in Kathmandu, survivors line up for free food – men first, then children and finally women.

“This is the way our society is. It is always men who get priority, even in times like these,” said Ashmita Sapokta from the local NGO Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC).

“Women eat at the end, usually whatever is left after men and children eat. There’s discrimination even in times of crisis,” Sapokta, who has been working on rescue and relief efforts since the quake hit, told IRIN.

“Until now, I hadn’t fully reflected on what it means to have the kind of physical strength that men do,” she said. “When they (aid agencies) drop relief materials such as rice sacks, women can’t lift them and take them away like men do. It is a constant struggle.”

Danwar doesn’t want her husband to leave his job in Dubai and come home to help.

“I was finally able to talk to my husband who wants to come back, but what is the point?” she said. “There’s nothing left. It is better he stays there and earns money so we can repay our loans.”


Click here for IRIN's full coverage of the Nepal earthquake