A world without men? When men go abroad to work, women in Nepal take the lead at home.
Night has fallen inky black and cold over Amar Basti village, but Kalpana Thapa and her neighbors are loath to drift off to bed. They punch at their phones, pull shawls tighter and coo at the children careening around. A light bulb, powered by a shared electricity line, illuminates the concrete platform that serves as Thapa’s dining room.
None of this — not the concrete, lights, smartphones or even the women chatting amicably with strangers — would have been imaginable 20 years ago.
“Women couldn’t even say their name back then,” says Thapa, 37, a half-smile playing across her lips. Her hair is pulled back, and faint lines stretch from her eyes. “Even in a women’s group they couldn’t stand up and speak their name [because] they were so shy. … Now at meetings, women outnumber men.”
To Thapa, the reason is clear: As more and more men leave Amar Basti, “the women are more active.”
With men working abroad, Nepal’s communities are giving women power they never had before — though at a cost. Today, women seem to run Amar Basti — a small village of about 100 households — in eastern Nepal’s Jhapa district.
Thapa’s husband has worked in Qatar for the past 18 years. Next to her sits Nirmala Guragain, whose husband Shiva has worked in Malaysia, Bahrain and Qatar on and off since 1998 and hopes to soon find a job in the United Arab Emirates.
Guragain’s sister, Mira, whose husband is also abroad, runs after her toddler. When the boy gets fussy, Mira presses her cellphone to his chubby cheek and tells him: “it’s for you.”
“Daddy?” he replies.
Each day, thousands of Nepalis migrate. Working abroad can be risky, even fatal, but for the approximately 3 million Nepalese employed overseas it represents a singular shot at a better life for them and their families. Today, nearly 32 percent of the Nepal’s GDP comes from remittances — the highest rate in the world — up from a mere 2 percent in 2000. Remittances are money sent by a foreign worker back into his or her home country. That figure translates to more than $6 billion a year, much-needed money for a nation with virtually no homegrown industry.
Pumped into small villages like Amar Basti, where residents relied solely on sustenance agriculture, the money has been transformative. After initial fees are paid to the labor broker, remittances send children to school, purchase land and build houses.
While an increasing number of migrant workers are women, the vast majority are men — many with wives and children. The phenomenon has become so common that young men in high-migration areas like Amar Basti find it difficult to find a wife if they don’t go abroad. Despite the loneliness, despite the potential clashes with in-laws and neighbors, it can be better for women to have husbands who live far away than ones who simply cannot provide.
With so many absent men in some areas of Nepal, the role of women has shifted dramatically.
This story was supported by the International Reporting Project.
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