Nepali Female Migrants – 2

By PhotoDrishti, March 2022: Nepalese female migrants in front of Stupa Tashi Gomang in Santa Susana, Alcácer do Sal, Portugal

This is the second part of a blog post introducing my postdoc research project with Nepalese Female Migrants from the 1st and 2nd generations in Portugal within the framework of the IHD – Integral Human Development postdoc program at CADOS, Universidade Católica Portuguesa, 2022.

                                                     © Alexandra Pereira, CECC, UCP, 2022                                                                       

* Cover Image Creative Commons License Type:   


Nepalese migration policies tend to reproduce some aspects of gender inequalities: migration is more difficult and bureaucratic for women and there were age bans to female migration in the past (e.g.: in 2012), partial bans (e.g.: in 2017)[1] or even total bans (e.g.: in 2014). As such, many women are pushed towards/opt for irregular migration channels in order to leave their home country. That use of irregular migration channels represents a major risk factor for sexual violence, physical abuse and economic exploitation (ILO, 2015)[2]. They look for better living conditions elsewhere: despite of the fact that the Nepali population is generally young, unemployment levels in the country are high and the average salary in Nepal remains very low. According to The World Bank (April 2022), labour market exposures to the COVID-19 crisis in Nepal were significant, and vulnerable households in Nepal face the risk of falling back into poverty. Inflation is accelerating due to higher non-food inflation, more significant imports and lower remittances, which contributed to the accumulation of debts and expenses in the trade balance (World Bank, 2022)[3]. The International Labour Office – ILO (2017) reviewed the laws and policies overtly intended to regulate the migration of women workers from Nepal, focusing especially on legal and policy provisions afforded to migrant domestic and garment workers based on the relevant international labour standards, and domestic migration and forced labour laws and practices[4].

Chaudary (2020) also analyzed the laws and policies relating to international migration from Nepal and its challenges: international migration has been a major source of income for many Nepali households for decades (57% of the households depend on international migration and it contributes to an estimated 26%-30% of the national GDP, which turns Nepal into one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world). Nepal issued over 4 million labour permits to migrant workers between 2008 and 2018, and amongst them over 176,000 were issued for women. Besides, it is believed that there are many Nepalis abroad who remain undocumented and challenges such as labour exploitation and trafficking (human, sexual, for domestic servitude) persist; moreover, more than 6,000 Nepalese migrants “returned home in coffins” over a decade (Chaudary, 2020)[5]. The emigration of females is still also partially stigmatized by the Nepali civil society – which traditionally tended to associate the unaccompanied movement of women with sexual exploitation and “impurity” matters (Bajracharya, 2015 and Shrestha, Mak and Zimmerman, 2020, cit. by Borelli, 2022). Nepalese women represent only 12-15% of Nepal’s total international migrants and 6-7% of the Nepali labour migrants’ bulk (Bajracharya, 2015; ILO, 2015; Borelli, 2022) but the general flow of female migrants has been increasing since the 1980s[6].

The Nepalese diaspora is now estimated at more than 4 million (most of these international migrants live in India) and the diaspora’s members religion is polytropous (it takes on different varieties and there is a mixture of religious practices). According to Sahina Shrestha for the Nepali Times (March 9, 2022)[7], “Their experience abroad instils in [Nepalese] women new self-esteem and assertiveness when they return, leading to a positive change in their gender roles within the household and the community” and “many women migrant workers who have returned to Nepal have also been active in social work, small businesses, and even joined politics” (Shrestha, 2022). Bijaya Rai Shrestha of AMKAS Nepal (an organisation that supports returnee female migrants) refers that empowerment begins from the moment a female migrant worker flies out of Kathmandu airport, travels to a new place and is exposed to a different culture, but soon they learn to adapt: “They take the first steps to economic independence, many open bank accounts for the first time when they apply for work. Once they come back to Nepal, they can handle their own financial affairs,” says Bijaya, herself a returnee (Shrestha, 2022).

Nepalese migration to Portugal grew mainly from the economic crisis of 2008-2009 onwards and increased 2360% (or 25 times) during the past 10 years (Borelli, 2022). The growth in the number of entries into the national territory was accentuated with the humanitarian crisis which followed the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal and the border closure with India, as well as after the successive revisions to the Nationality Law and Immigration Law from 2007 in Portugal. With Portugal having some of the lowest fertility rates and highest demographic aging rates in Europe (INE, 2021), during the past 5 years there were almost 2 thousand births from Nepalese mothers in the country; in 2019, this nationality occupied the 2nd place for newborns, only surpassed by newborns from Brazilian mothers in Portugal (Bhattarai/ISPUP, 2019). Much of the Nepali labour migration to Portugal is motivated by labour shortages, the growing tendency to adopt jus soli over jus sanguinis[8] and, in the European context, the relatively easier (albeit time-consuming and bureaucratic) regularization in the European Union and the Schengen Area, facilitated by Portugal.

If the Nepalese diaspora manages to build transnational social fields and to articulate new forms of migrant sociocultural transnationalism across borders, how can we mobilize and redirect these exchanges and resources, capacities (Nussbaum, 2000) and competences (personal and communitarian ones) for the construction of compound identities and inter-communitarian spheres of belongingness in the host country (Portugal)? Specifically, how can we help Nepalese female migrants to build their own compound identities – by selecting a combination of aspects from the origin and destination societies[9] which personally serve and dignify them (avoiding to alienate or uproot them)? Or, as Herder would put it (cited by Taylor, 1994: 32), how can we help these women to discover their authenticity and their original way of being? Taylor (1994) has stressed that our identities are dialogic and negotiated, both externally and internally, with others. In this sense, how can we extend the personal safety net of Nepali migrants in Portugal beyond their ties of origin to Nepal and their axiological community of belonging in the destination country? Or how can we promote female empowerment in a traditionally patriarchal, patrilineal and patrilocal community, while avoiding to totally discard the sense of belonging provided by traditional heritage? How can we help 2nd generation females neither to passively accept their heritage, nor to reject it with fervent shame and embarrassment – both ​​implicit in the expression often used by some of them to describe their original community of belonging: “These people are all ignorant!”? How can we promote intergenerational dialogue and valorization within the framework of the construction of their compound identities?

In other words, starting from the original research question: “What are the main inequalities and discriminations faced by Nepalese female migrants in Portugal and what are their main skills, capabilities and resources which can be mobilized – in order to avoid the reproduction of those inequalities?”, we aim to broaden the spectrum of both our questions and answers. Stressing not only the importance of creating a material and institutional environment that supports the development of capabilities considered relevant by these women (Nussbaum, 2000), but also the significance of identifying relationships of similarity and interdependence in order to build and articulate multiple belongings with an inter-communitarian nature. According to Taylor (1994), it would also be possible to protect the rights and well-being of Nepali citizens who do not feel satisfied or who are even segregated and excluded from their community of belonging, within the framework of a Western-style democratic political environment. Obviously, an uncritical assimilation to Portuguese society is not defended here, nor is the Jacobin laïcité (because of its radical nature and its refusal of pluralism) – but a productive intercultural dialogue is defended instead, within the framework of respect for human dignity and for the rights of women as defined by CEDAW-UN[10].

Nepalese Stupa

  By Pexels, Nepalese Stupa

Granovetter (1973), Entzinger and Biezeveld (2003) or Rubin et al. (2011) are amongst the authors who differentiated between the concepts of migrant integration[11], acculturation, assimilation and marginalization. However, the concept of “integration” (we only subscribe it in the sense of Rubin et al., 2011) has been disputed – the very concept of “immigrants” tends to be replaced by the expression “newcomers”, under some circumstances – or deprecated in favour of “social cohesion” and convivial aspects, relational practices, power asymmetries and materialities involved with the negotiation of differences (Meissner and Heil, 2020). While social scientists struggle with terminological games frequently strayed from the fundamental principle of belonging, the term “inclusion” (Bartolomei, 2018) seems to be a happier choice, as it underlines the primordial social function of the community and the positive agency of the natives in their relationship with the “newcomers” (far beyond the sole flexibility and initiative by the migrant him/herself). It is, we believe, also possible to establish bridges between the operative aspects of the notion of “relational integration” as proposed by Lea Klarenbeek (2019) and the identity of the Christian, as proposed by Pope Francis (2017): a “relational identity”.

But does the Nepalese community in Portugal, articulated in its different groups and local networks, fulfill its social function of inclusion (activated as inclusivity) for Nepalese migrant women from the 1st and 2nd generations (Bartolomei, 2018)? How do females of both generations articulate their cultural and religious belongings – according to the archetypal models of “contractualization” or “surrender” (Lotman, 1990)?[12] Nussbaum (2001: 179) also defends the intrinsic value of religious capabilities and the importance of the ideas of justice in their own religion as sources of empowerment, for some women. Nepalese migrants, on another hand, can resort to a kind of “divine gender justice” in Hinduism as an argument for optimistic gender power balance, declaring: “Men have to develop appreciation for women because some of the most important goddesses to whom they have to pray [in Hinduism] are females: the goddesses of love, wealth, war…». Is there social stress due to the ethical criteria dictated by religious affiliation – which may be incompatible with the ethical criteria of the legal framework of the political community and even of Nepali ethnic communities with other religious affiliations (Buddhist, Animist, Shamanic, Christian)?

Is there mutual recognition between the local political community and the Nepali community (in its whole axiological, epistemic, religious and cultural diversity)? Taylor (1994) told us: that which is new in the modern age is not the need for recognition per se (which has always existed), but the conditions under which such recognition may fail. If such mutual recognition does not exist – how can we build and promote it? This leads us to the challenge of building communion within difference(s). Will it be possible to regulate and build spheres of inter-communitarian belonging based on existing relationships of similarity, intersection and interdependence – for both the 1st and the 2nd generations of Nepalese female migrants? And how can Nepali cultural memory become not only informative but also creative (Lotman, 1990)?

We will adopt an intersectional (Crenshaw, 1989; Collins, 2015) and transintersectional approach, or transnational intersectionality (Grabe and Else-Quest, 2012), since it allows for the capture of different layers of belonging or exclusion associated with the formation of transnational social fields occurring in the Nepalese diaspora. Both Grabe and Else-Quest (2012) and Denmark and Segovich (2012) defend the importance of considering the country of origin and the culture while considering women’s psychology. We propose an analysis of the following dimensions (7): migratory path, family relationships, labour relationships, social relationships, community relationships, sexual relationships and legal self-determination. These dimensions define layers or a constellation of belongingness and capture negotiations performed by Nepalese female migrants. We will suggest ways to prevent various types of inequalities and exclusions faced by these women as well, by adopting an intergenerational perspective and proposing practical measures, new partnerships and an innovative pilot-project. Finally, this project aims to place the most vulnerable and the peripheries at the centre of the debate on their own societal inclusion.

*Please find the portuguese translation on the next page

*Para a tradução portuguesa da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página 


[1] https://www.nepalitimes.com/banner/homes-away-from-home/ and https://www.nepalitimes.com/here-now/ban-the-ban/ [last visited on the 10th of May 2022].

[2] Furthermore, the forced choice of irregular migration “(…) deprives migrant women from the benefits of private and government insurance, which include financial compensation and repatriation in the event of accident or death, as well as from pre-emigration training courses, fundamental to face migration in a conscious and informed manner.” (Borelli, 2022).

[3] World Bank (2022). Nepal Development Update. April 13, 2022. [available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/nepal/publication/nepaldevelopmentupdate, last visited on the 12th of May 2022].

[4] These provisions are described as a system that partially influences would-be migrants’ decisions in addition to other systemic ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. ILO (2017). Migrant women workers and overt migration policies in Nepal: A law and policy baseline study / International
Labour Office, Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch (FUNDAMENTALS), Geneva. ISBN: 978-92-2-130546-0 (Print); 978-92-2-130547-7 (Web PDF)

[5] Chaudhary, D. (2020, November). International Migration Policy, Law And Governance In Nepal: An Overview. In The Migration Conference 2020 Proceedings: Migration and Politics (pp. 11-21). Transnational Press London. Chaudary (2020): «For instance, Foreign Employment Policy 2012 has some provisions regarding international migration, such as training, psycho-social counselling, and rehabilitation centres under the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund and creating productive investment for returning migrants. Ministry of Labour Employment and Social Security is an apex body of migration governance and responsible for periodic monitoring and evaluation of the policies and implementations. Despite such laws, policies and efforts, international labour migration has frequently been questioned in terms of safety, trafficking and exploitation.»

[6] Through monetary and social remittances, migrant women support their family, providing cultural and economic assistance by paying for the education of children and siblings, sending material goods, paying for food, housing, rituals, consultations and appointments related to spirituality and health services, still at the expense of significant human and emotional resources such as the risk of violence, discrimination, violation of labour rights and the weakening of mother-child relationships (Bhadra, 2007). «Other women decide to emigrate to escape domestic violence or, for the case of separated or widowed women, to escape social rejection in their communities. Furthermore, labour migration is used as a way of circumventing the social pressures of marriage [by arrangement] and dedication to the domestic life. The desire of a better future to their children, starting with educational opportunities and equal opportunities and rights, represents the driving force behind the migratory choice in most cases (Pereira 2019). The migration trajectories of Nepalese women were initially directed towards Southeast and East Asia (India, Japan and Hong Kong) where they concentrated in the domestic and service sectors.» (Borelli, 2022: 58-59).

[7] Shrestha, S. (2022). Female migrant workers hold up half the sky – Migration offers Nepali women a chance to become financially independent, yet the government tried to restrict it. The Nepali Times online, 09 March 2022 [available at: https://www.nepalitimes.com/here-now/female-migrant-workers-hold-up-half-the-sky/ , last visited on the 11th of May 2022].

[8] Jus soli or “soil right” indicates a principle by which a nationality can be assigned to an individual according to his place of birth. It contrasts with jus sanguinis, which determines the “right of blood”.

[9] In the sense of Hall (2003) and Gilroy (1993).

[10] Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – CEDAW, United Nations General Assembly (2017) and its subsequent revisions.

[11] It is important to distinguish between the concept of “integration” in its institutional and normative dimensions. While institutional integration refers to an increased immigrant participation in the main institutions of a society such as the labor market, education or the health system, normative integration would lead to acculturation, which corresponds to changes in the cultural orientation and identification of migrants ( Entzinger and Biezeveld, 2003). Rubin et al. (2011) define people who integrate as involved both in their cultural heritage and in the culture of the host society, while Sam and Berry (2010) postulate that acculturated immigrants are those who are oriented towards one or another of the cultures, as a way of assimilation and separation (Sam and Berry, 2010: 472).

[12] J. Lotman (2019). Juri Lotman – Culture, Memory and History. Essays in Cultural Semiotics. Editor Marek Tamm, Tallinn University. Translated from the Russian by Brian James Baer. Palgrave Macmillan imprint published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG: Cham. Translated from: Iurii Lotman, Izbrannye stat’i. Vol. 1: Stat’i po semiotike i tipologii kul’tury. Tallinn: Aleksandra, 1992. 

By Alexandra Pereira, 2022: SGD Mapper

SDG-Report-Nepalese Migrant Women 2

SDG-Indicators-Table-Nepalese Migrant Women 2


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