BHAKTAPUR, NEPAL — Gautam is 31 and has to take several pills a day to keep her hands and legs from swelling. The narrow bed in her one-room house in this district is strewn with silver strips of medicines. Despite the pain she is in, the single mother has had to run around government offices in town for months trying to get a birth certificate for her 3-year-old daughter. The state agencies keep turning her away, she says, each time instructing her to return with proof that the child is legally hers.
Gautam, who like other sources in this story is not being fully identified to protect her identity, had her daughter with a man she met in Kuwait, where she had gone to work as a domestic helper in 2019. In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, Gautam and her partner were suddenly out of work. When the Nepali Embassy in Kuwait offered to fly the country’s nationals home, Gautam jumped on the opportunity, thinking she’d be in a better place to take care of her daughter back home. However, while flying back, the embassy documents issued to her did not specify her relationship with the baby traveling with her. Months later and thousands of miles away, in the government offices of Bhaktapur, Gautam’s daughter, now a school-going toddler, couldn’t be issued a birth certificate because her mother had no way to prove that her child was really hers.
Gautam’s case is not an isolated one. Every year, many women migrate from Nepal to the Gulf as domestic workers. Since 1998, when a ban was first instituted on women migrating to the Gulf for these jobs, the government of Nepal has lifted and reinstituted the ban multiple times. It was reinforced in 2017, but poverty drives Nepali women to the Middle East to find work. In several cases the women are routed through other South Asian countries and end up in the Gulf on tourist visas, making them “illegal” workers in the countries, says Dandu Raj Ghimire, spokesperson for Nepal’s Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security. As a result, they fail to procure birth documents for children born there due to the limited rights they have. And when they return to Nepal, the women who don’t have a male partner struggle to get the birth registered due to lack of valid documentation that establishes their relationship with the children. Without a birth certificate, the children are denied citizenship rights, are barred from getting admission at government schools, are unable to eventually have bank accounts opened in their names, and are unable to benefit from a host of government welfare programs for the economically disadvantaged.
Megh Raj Shankar, an officer at the Department of National ID and Civil Registration in Nepal, explains that while the country has made provisions for single mothers like Gautam to register the birth of their babies born overseas, if the women cannot establish proof of their relationship with the child, the state has to extend extra support to them.
However, Global Press Journal found that single mothers from economically marginalized communities in Nepal find it nearly impossible to navigate the state’s processes to get the births of their children born overseas registered legally.
“What proof do I have that she is my daughter?”
As a worker without a valid work visa, Gautam couldn’t go to a hospital for her delivery — her daughter was born at home in Kuwait, with no legal document to her name. When she landed in Nepal in 2020, Gautam lost her phone at the airport and, with it, her partner’s number. She had no other means to contact him directly.
“I searched for the man a lot on social media but did not find him,” Gautam says. She sent her brother to Kuwait to look for him several months later, but the man could not be found at the address anymore. While the disappearance of her partner troubled her, it also meant she could not use his identity documents to get her daughter’s birth registered. “The Bhaktapur municipality says what proof do I have that she is my daughter and refuses to give her birth certificate,” Gautam says. Gautam’s daughter has been admitted to a government school on the condition that she will provide a birth certificate soon. Without the document, Gautam’s daughter will eventually face the threat of not being allowed to take a secondary exam in Nepal, and may never have access to higher education.
A report published by the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal reveals at least 3% of women who travel to the Gulf to work get pregnant and give birth to children there. Absent fathers complicating the process of registering the birth of children in Nepal is a longstanding issue. In the past, the father’s identity was mandatory to register a child’s birth and also award the child citizenship. The country’s laws have since been amended to ensure that a child’s birth certificate can be issued in the name of the mother too, under certain circumstances.
However, Navaraj Jaisi, director of the registration wing of Nepal’s Department of National ID and Civil Registration, says single women have to prove their relationship with their child and file a police complaint declaring that the father of the child is “missing.” Only then can a child’s birth be registered.
For single mothers, acquiring even this documentation has been a challenge, often due to the circumstances under which they have had to leave a foreign country.
Oli went to Oman with hopes of a better life in 2016. She worked in the house of a woman who also rented her a room in an apartment complex she owned. The landlady’s brother often visited the house where Oli worked and sexually assaulted her. “He threatened, ‘If you tell my family, I will kill you.’ That is why I never told anyone. He came every three months and forced himself on me. He did not live in the house. I did not speak out of fear,” Oli says. Oli hid her pregnancy from her employer as long as she could, but in the seventh month of her pregnancy, she started bleeding as a result of the assault and had to visit a hospital. Upon realizing Oli was pregnant, the employer decided to discontinue her employment and send her back to Nepal. But she did not stop at that — since Oli had a contract that required her to work for the Omani employer for two years, the woman got Oli jailed for breach of contract. Oli’s pregnancy was revealed to the employer with four months left in their contract.
After giving birth in a hospital, Oli spent four months in prison. In 2018, when she returned to Nepal with her infant son, Oli’s husband and in-laws refused to accept the baby and started abusing her. And since Oli was not issued any valid birth document either, it fell upon her husband to extend his identity to the child — and he refused. Her son is now 5 and his birth has yet to be registered. The boy has been unable to receive free vaccinations provided by the government and other medical benefits covered under the country’s social security allowance.
“Without a birth certificate, one doesn’t get admission in a school and get insurance, apart from being barred from a host of other public services,” says Jaisi, the government officer.
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
“What can we do for the illegals?”
Thirty-three-year-old Rai returned from Kuwait in 2020 with a child she had from a relationship there. The baby, like Gautam’s, was born at home, and Rai has no document linking her son to her. The child’s travel documents were also made in the name of her husband in Nepal, who wasn’t keen on extending his identity to her son, so the 5-year-old doesn’t yet have a birth certificate. “I feel guilty. It was worthless to go,” Rai says.
Oli says she is fed up with her life. “Sometimes there’s no money for food, sometimes there’s no money to buy clothes. My son doesn’t get things he wants,” she says. Since her return to Nepal, Oli tries to get by doing odd jobs. With no hope of getting help from state agencies, Oli now plans to leave for Malaysia to work as a domestic maid, leaving her son at a government-run child care center.
Ganesh Gurung, a Nepali labor and migration expert, says women who return to Nepal with a child born overseas struggle with extreme mental distress. Shunned by society and family, and unable to get requisite legal aid and state benefits for their children born abroad, many women turn to prostitution, Gurung says.
In 2004, Gurung, another woman who went to work in Kuwait as a domestic helper and is not being fully identified, hoped her income from the work would help educate her daughters back home. But a nightmare awaited, she says. “We could eat only after the employers ate. We got no rest. We weren’t even allowed to sit,” Gurung says. Tired of the torture, Gurung fled her employer’s house. Her passport, however, was with her employer, and there was no way she could return to get it.
Gurung later had a child with an Indian man she met after fleeing her workplace. Though her son was born in a hospital, no documentation was issued for him. “As an illegal [worker] and without a passport, it was not possible to get a birth certificate made,” Gurung says. The child’s father died due to heart complications and Gurung herself was jailed for a few months based on her employer’s complaint. “In Kuwait, if they don’t like their maid, they file a police complaint to get the maids arrested,” she says.
Her son had no proof of birth or citizenship rights until she married a man four years after returning to Nepal in 2009. Her new husband provided his own proof of identity to register the birth certificate of her son, who is now 16.
Lily Thapa, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, says that to address the oppression faced by women during foreign employment, the commission has signed a memorandum of understanding with the human rights commission of Malaysia. Thapa says there are plans to sign a similar agreement with Qatar soon to help protect the rights of migrant workers.
However, Ghimire, the labor ministry spokesperson, says that often women who go to work in the Middle East on tourist visas are not eligible for the compensatory services that the government has for women who face oppression. Employers in the Gulf are often aware of this and take advantage of the situation. “What can we do for the illegals? It is difficult,” he says.