Migration and Women’s Rights in Nepal

By Abby Seiff | March 22, 2017 | Nepal

Little girls’ report cards. This, it seemed, was what people really wanted to discuss. My colleague Pragati and I had flown from Kathmandu to the eastern border of Nepal to speak with people about migration. We went to Jhapa, a district with the second-highest rate of labor migration in the country. And then we went to Dhanusha, which had the highest rate. Tens of thousands of people have been leaving these areas each year to go work in the gulf. And, sure, families talked to us about that. But inevitably the conversation would veer toward report cards.

“She’s number one in her class.”

“She’s number two.”

“We tell her: she doesn’t have to do any chores, her job is to study.”

“She’s going to be a doctor.”

“She’s going to be an engineer.”

One father directed his seven-year-old to fetch her report card. “All As!” he boomed, while his daughter looked on proudly. A mother had her six-year-old sing me the ABCs. Then I handed her my notebook and she wrote out — in English — her name, her brother’s name, her mother’s name and the name of her dad, working overseas.

There is virtually no local industry in Nepal and farming can barely cover the needs of families; not in the best of times, certainly not amid changing climates. And so humans have become the country’s key export. Upward of three million Nepalis are currently working abroad, providing 30 percent of the GDP. Most of those abroad are men and many of them are supporting families back home. They leave for years at a time. Ten percent of the country: gone.

Such a mass movement of people changes society in a thousand tiny and giant ways. One manner of change, a revolution that I did not anticipate before this trip, is that migration is allowing for previously unfathomable levels of education.

Families who might have sent their children to government school now send them to private schools — which have mushroomed across even the tiniest villages. Families who had been too poor for any school can now enroll their kids in the government ones. Parents who might have married an illiterate daughter off at age 14 now wait until she gets her School Leaving Certificate at the end of grade 10. It is not unusual to meet a family where the grandparents are illiterate, the parents had to leave school at fifth grade, and the children are attending college.

All children benefit from the money being sent back home, but it would seem that girls in particular flourish. To be frank, this is strictly observational. Over several weeks of reporting on migration, Pragati and I spoke to some 60 people.

This is not a representative sample size. We were not surveying people on gender or education. But time after time after time we were meeting girls of all ages who adored and excelled in school. There are practical reasons for a parent to invest in a daughter’s education: she will garner better proposals when it comes time for marriage. And there are pragmatic reasons why there might be less push for a son: despite an education, he’ll still have to work abroad. What is clear, however, is this situation — perhaps even more than migration itself — will accelerate change at the village level.

Halfway through our reporting trip, Pragati and I stumbled on a wedding in a very conservative Madhesi community. The young man had worked in Qatar and returned home for his arranged marriage to a 16-year-old from a neighboring village. He was shy but open, and talked to us about his bride with a mild air of awe. When he told us about how she was more educated than he, it was with a note of pride.

Ordinarily, the bride remains sequestered in a room for three days, allowed to see no one outside the family. After that, she can leave the room but cannot leave the house compound for two years. Because we were both women, the family let us in and we chatted with the bride for a while. In flawless, formal Nepali (most people in this area speak Maithili), she told us she had received her School Leaving Certificate and had started 11th grade. Her father had made the in-laws promise she could keep studying, but she told us she wouldn’t hold her breath. Her husband, however, was adamant. “I would like to support her education,” he told us, while his father scoffed in the background.

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