Nimisha’s story needs a sympathetic hearing - Hindustan Times
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Nimisha’s story needs a sympathetic hearing

Nov 24, 2023 10:54 PM IST

Nimisha Priya’s life and fate hang by a thread. But there are many who fall through the cracks, working in abysmal conditions with nobody to speak for them.

When Nimisha Priya first went to Yemen to work, the Arab Spring had not taken place and civil unrest was yet to break out. The nurse from Kerala was not short on ambition and wanted a better life for her family. For that, she figured, she would set up her own clinic even though Yemeni law required her to have a local partner.

Malayali nurse Nimisha Priya
Malayali nurse Nimisha Priya

In 2014, her husband and baby daughter returned to India to raise money for the clinic. Nimisha followed a year later for her daughter’s baptism. It was the last time she saw her.

After she returned to Sana’a, civil strife broke out and the Indian government imposed a travel ban to Yemen. It remains in place to this day.

Alone in a foreign country, it became easier for her local partner Talal Abdo Mahdi to physically, sexually and financially exploit her. Like all employers in the Gulf region, he had her passport without which she couldn’t leave. In 2017, Nimisha filed a police complaint but instead, it was she who was arrested and placed in jail for a few days, says her lawyer and migrant rights activist K R Subash Chandran. A friend then advised her to sedate Mahdi, steal her passport back from him and escape. But she administered an overdose and Mahdi died.

In 2020, a trial court sentenced Nimisha to death. Until then, says Chandran, even the Indian consulate didn’t know about her case and she received no legal or financial assistance. “She is a victim of war, denied justice, denied a lawyer and had nobody to assist her due to the internal conflict in Yemen,” he says.

After a few newspapers picked up her story, a group of activists formed the Save Nimisha Priya International Action Council. Legal counsel was retained but she lost her appeal in 2022 with a significant caveat: If she paid blood money, she could escape the death sentence. On November 13 this year, Yemen’s Supreme Council affirmed both the death sentence and the option of paying blood money.

But with the travel ban in place, who would negotiate on behalf of Nimisha? Her mother, Prema Kumari who works as a domestic worker has asked the Delhi high court for permission to travel. The court has given the government one week to decide on the issue. Sources say permission is likely to come through.

“We will raise the funds through crowd-funding and through benefactors in the diaspora,” says a confident Chandran.

Migrant workers, male and female, leave their countries to live in tough conditions so that they can provide for their families: A house in the village here, a daughter’s education there. Gulf countries, operate under a system called Kafala where employers keep passports and academic certificates ostensibly for “safe custody”. The International Labour Organisation terms this a “contemporary form of slavery” since it leaves employees vulnerable to exploitation. For women, this could include sexual exploitation.

There is a lot of work to be done, says S Irudaya Rajan, chair of the International Institute of Migration and Development in Kerala. For instance, he says, we don’t even have official data on the number of women migrant workers. Globally, according to the United Nations Department of Economics and Statistics, 3.6% of the world population, or 281 million people, are migrants with the 12 Arab nations in the Gulf accounting for 14% of migrants, reports Rejimon Kuttappan for IndiaSpend.

“India is a major migrant-sending country to the Middle East. But there is little protection for these workers, including women. We need pre-departure orientation—what to expect, cultural differences and who to reach out to in times of trouble,” says Rajan. The 40-year-old Emigration Act is still to be updated, despite versions being introduced in Parliament. Nor has India signed key global conventions to protect migrant workers and their families, writes Kuttappan.

Until then, India has adopted a few measures. For instance, sponsors of Indian women domestic workers must pay a refundable security deposit of $2,500. The government banned overseas recruitment of nurses by private agencies in 2016. None of these measures has stopped the complaints. Between 2019 and June 2023, the Indian embassies in the Gulf countries received 48,095 complaints from Indian migrant workers with Kuwait topping the list with 23,020 complaints, reports Kuttappan.

The problem, says senior advocate Indira Jaising, is the absence of government oversight. “The women work as slave labour and there is no oversight to ensure they are treated with respect,” she says. Nimisha Priya’s life and fate hang by a thread. But there are many who fall through the cracks, working in abysmal conditions with nobody to speak for them.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender. The views expressed are personal

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