On May 10 last year, three days before the local elections, Sanimaya of Pokhara Metropolitan City ward-15 flew out of Nepal from the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in the company of two dozen other women.
They were going to Dubai, the UAE, on a visit visa. But each of them was also given separate papers with visas for Kuwait, meticulously folded and wrapped up inside biscuit wrappers, and sealed with gum.
“From the outside, it looked like a packet of biscuits, but inside there was a separate document for Kuwait, and we had to keep it in our handbags,” said Sanimaya.
Thirty-five-year-old Sanimaya is a widowed mother of four: three daughters (aged 16, 17 and 21) and a son (15). She has been preoccupied with giving a good life to her children after losing her husband to a heart disease in 2020.
“After my husband’s death, I had sustained my family by doing manual labour,” she said.
Sanimaya was looking for a good source of income. It was then that one of her neighbours connected her to a manpower agent in Kathmandu.
But upon landing in Kuwait, she had to live a life which she calls a ‘hell,’ and says she survived only by sheer luck.
Sanimaya was rescued and brought back to Nepal five months ago, on October 2, and the torture and abuses she faced in Kuwait haunt her to this day. She asks other women not to be lured by offers of employment on a visit visa until they are good with the language and at least have some knowledge of the laws of the host countries.
Separately, the Post met Chameli at the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau of the Nepal Police at Babarmahal on Monday.
She was there to collect her passport.
Chameli, 33, a mother of a 13-year-old son, was stopped by the bureau along with 19 other women last Friday as they were planning to fly from the TIA to Dubai on visit visas.
Chameli used to run a small eatery in Kirtipur, where she lives in a rented room. But when the Post met Chameli, now divorced, she was unhappy with the bureau’s decision and reluctant to talk.
“My sister-in-law who lives in Dubai is sponsoring me, it’s all above board. But the police did not allow me to go after I could not name the bank where I had deposited the money to fund my visit,” said Chameli. She said she didn’t have a clue about why the other women accompanying her were stopped.
She and a half-a-dozen other women who had come to the bureau on the day were rueing the money they spent on tickets, but more than that the shattering of their dream of earning a decent income abroad.
Sanimaya says she too dreamt big until she landed in Kuwait.
“If you are going for domestic work on a visit visa, you will be sold. You won’t earn money, and you won’t be able to come back to Nepal either,” said Sanimaya, who is now living with her 65-year-old mother in Nayagaun, Pokhara. Her father is 70. She says she has difficulty moving her hips, nor can she properly use her fingers.
Before Sanimaya actually got to Kuwait, she had little idea about the country: where it was and how far from her home. But another woman in her neighbourhood convinced her that she would get to do domestic work in a safe environment in Kuwait, and would be saving Rs40,000 a month. She would also be entitled to free meals and accommodation. The woman even connected her with the manpower agent named Prakash Shahi Thakuri.
Struggling to properly bring up children on her own, she latched on to the opportunity.
At the time, the country’s security forces were largely focused on the impending elections, and that is why the agents who had initially arranged to fly Sanimaya and other women out of New Delhi changed their mind and decided to use the Tribhuvan International Airport instead.
“The agent had given each of us $250, and I showed this amount to the police at the airport. I had also been told that I should say that I was going to Dubai on a visit,” said Sanimaya.
In March last year, the Department of Immigration had issued a 17-point regulation to address visit visa-related issues, including provisions like the requirement of higher education and bank balance of Rs500,000 for women wanting to fly abroad for work.
At the airport, a woman police officer tried to question Sanimaya and others, but a heavyset man who was standing a few feet away signalled to the police officer to let the women go.
“We were surprised, nobody checked us and we were directly taken inside the plane,” said Sanimaya.
Sanimaya, who is illiterate, said at one transit she was told by her agent to tear all the Dubai-related documents and throw them in a dustbin.
“Then, I was to show the biscuit-cover-wrapped document related to Kuwait that was hidden in my handbag,” she said.
Sanimaya along with two dozen other women were directly flown to Kuwait and taken to a hotel that was an hour and a half away by bus. After they had their meals, they were herded into an empty room with chairs under strict CCTV surveillance.
“We were kept like goats for sale, and rich Kuwaiti people would come and pick us up,” she said.
On the first day, only half a dozen girls were sold, while the ‘unsold’ Sanimaya and other ladies were kept in a poorly-lit room.
On the fifth day, one businessman bought Sanimaya. “They preferred slim girls, and as my physique was quite lean, I was chosen,” said Sanimaya.
She said she was sold for $900 for two years. The businessman took her home where she had to clean the house, wash clothes and work in the kitchen. But after a week, the businessman took her back to the same place, and another rich man bought her.
That was when her hardships really started. The second Kuwaiti man who took her home forced her to work for 20 hours a day.
“In a single day, I had to work in three different houses, and in one house I had to look after four other children including one mentally ill. It was a daunting task,” said Sanimaya.
She worked a minimum of six hours at one house, before being taken to another, and then to the next. “They would come to pick me up in a car and ferry me around houses, making me work continuously, without even bothering to ask if I had eaten properly or had a night’s sleep,” she shared.
She would be confined in sky-scrapers and their big compounds, and she would only see the road outside, and sometimes a passing car when she went out to dispose of household garbage.
But her hardships didn’t end there. After working for two months, one of the house owners left for the UK for cancer treatment, and that’s when the owner’s sons, who were 15 and 18, abused her. The house lady’s mother-in-law became more intolerant towards Sanimaya.
“One day, when I was working, those boys tried to sexually abuse me. I tried to retaliate but they hit me with sticks,” said Sanimaya. As she was not given proper food to eat, she could not work and started having a severe headache.
Sanimaya was then taken to the Farwaniya Hospital, with the consent of an agent through whom she was sold.
“The agent who had sold me for $900 for two years tried to take away my kidney, perhaps because the money had to be paid back to my owners,” said Sanimaya. If she ran from home, the house owner could file a complaint of theft.
Sanimaya said she was given multiple injections at the hospital, in her arms and her thighs.
“I had a headache, but they kept on giving injections, trying to make me drowsy. Once, when a doctor was trying to forcefully inject me, I shouted, I started crying, telling them that I wanted to go back to my country, Nepal,” said Sanimaya.
Sanimaya says that she had taken her cellphone to the hospital and would take pictures and videos of her hospital room. She even managed to call her Nepali agent, Prakash Thakuri, but he asked for Rs500,000 to arrange for her return to Nepal.
“There was no way I could have given him so much money,” said Sanimaya.
Nobody understood Nepali at the hospital, and she had no one to talk to.
But once, when she was crying, another Nepali woman who worked at the hospital as a cleaner heard her from outside the room. The worker then advised that Sanimaya should run away as a plan was being hatched to remove one of her kidneys.
“She was a godsend,” Sanimaya said. “Her face was covered in a burka, and she said that I should get out of the hospital at any cost. She even suggested a way to escape from that big hospital.”
She had been in Farwaniya Hospital for five days when she made an escape plan.
“At 3pm, all attending doctors had to go register their attendance. At that time, I somehow managed to get a cleaner’s dress and was able to reach one of the hospital’s elevators,” she said. “A Bengali person who I met in the elevator gave me the exact location of the exit.”
From the hospital she boarded a taxi and reached the Embassy of Nepal in Al-Jabriya, Kuwait City.
“I was too weak. The Nepali employees at the embassy scolded me for coming there by running away from a hospital. But when I explained that my life was in danger, they were more sympathetic and agreed to help me,” said Sanimaya.
She was rescued on October 2, the day of Phulpati, the seventh day of Dashain festival.
That was not the end of her ordeal.
Back home, she was shunned by her family members.
“I had flown out to secure my children’s future, but my in-laws accused me of eloping after their son’s death,” said Sanimaya, who now lives at her maternal home in Pokhara with her parents. She has not been able to meet her children since returning to Nepal.
Recently, after she lodged a complaint at the anti-human trafficking bureau, it nabbed Prakash Shahi Thakuri aka Prakash Dhimal from Kathmandu on January 23. He is now in judicial custody.
Sanimaya is one of countless women who face similar hardships in Gulf countries after going there through informal channels.
“I don’t know what happened to most of those other cheerful women who had flown with me, and who were sold like goats,” Sanumaya said. “A few of them still connect with me over TikTok, saying that they seldom get enough food, are made to work all the time and are constantly tortured.”
Yet the great exodus of Nepali women on visit visas continues unabated.
Senior Superintendent Jeevan Kumar Shrestha, chief at the anti-trafficking bureau, said the women who are trafficked on visit visas are mostly illiterate, poor and divorced.
The bureau’s data show that in the past two months, 568 women who had been to the TIA to fly to the Gulf on visit visas were intercepted. He said these women were being taken to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman as domestic workers on fraudulent documents.
“Basically, traffickers look for poor, illiterate and divorced or widowed women and lure them with free visas, tickets, transport and accommodation,” Shrestha said.
Unable to make enough to sustain their families, countless women are still determined to leave on the perilous journey—at any cost.
Only last week, the bureau intercepted 40 women from the TIA as they were ready to fly to various Gulf countries on tourist visas. But when these women are brought to the bureau for orientation, they invariably get angry at the police officers for trying to shatter their dreams.
Sanimaya has a message for them.
“If somebody offers to take you somewhere in the Gulf free of cost on a visit visa with a promise of a decent job, then it’s a scam, a trap,” she said. “Don’t fall for it. Or you will regret the decision for the rest of your life.”
The names of some respondents have been changed to protect their privacy.