Kathmandu, Nepal – They trickle into the nondescript hotel room in Dhading Besi on a Saturday afternoon, articulate young college students, demure housewives in saris, unlettered farmers with weathered faces, and nursing mothers with toddlers in tow.
These women are prospective migrant workers who expect to find jobs as housemaids in secluded villas in the Gulf to escape extreme poverty, unemployment and debts.
But human rights groups believe government efforts to protect them – about 13 percent of the 1,700 Nepalese who migrate every day are women – may increase the risk they face of exploitation, physical and sexual abuse, forced labour and trafficking.
It's unfortunate that government bans enforced to protect Nepali women migrant workers from exploitation and abuse have had the opposite impact
"Domestic workers account for an estimated 80 percent of the total number of women migrant workers," says Dr Ganesh Gurung, a migration specialist and former chair of the national network for safe migration.
"The majority are undocumented. It's unfortunate that government bans enforced to protect Nepali women migrant workers from exploitation and abuse have had the opposite impact."
Their journey often begins in the room in Dhading Besi, three hours' drive from the capital, Kathmandu, that has been transformed into a makeshift classroom.
They listen intently as Manju Gurung, a former migrant worker, lists the dos and don'ts of the economic migrant.
"Always go through formal government channels, know what's in your contract, pre-departure training and orientation are mandatory," she stresses.
Once a rural hamlet, Dhading Besi has been visibly transformed by the money earned by Nepalese migrants, and new buildings and shops flank the town centre.
Gurung, a founder member of the Pourakhi Nepal organisation established to empower women migrants, acknowledges the economic benefits of working abroad but is also aware of the stigma that attached to these women and the emotional toll migration takes on their families.
She told Al Jazeera, "We don't support or discourage female migrant labour. But we believe women are entitled to work and to make an informed choice."
Karma Lama (name changed) hails from a highland village in Nepal where three years ago, barely out of her teens, she dropped out of school to help her family scrape a meagre living on the rugged terraces.
She collected firewood and fodder, took animals to graze and carried out household chores while dreaming of working overseas in order to save enough to marry and settle down.
Approximately 25 percent of women who come to us have undergone some kind of sexual abuse or trauma
Encouraged by money orders sent home by her older siblings, both domestic workers in the Gulf, Karma sold wild berries to travellers to raise cash for a passport and new clothes.
She pestered her parents, impoverished farmers, to raise 50,000 Nepali rupees ($500) to pay an agent, a close relative, to procure a tourist visa to Dubai.
Despite her family’s misgivings about her age - Nepal's government prohibits women below the age of 30 from working as domestics - Karma was determined to leave.
A week before her departure she travelled to Kathmandu, a day's bus ride away, where basic lessons in housekeeping comprised learning to cook on a gas stove and cleaning a toilet.
Yet ill-prepared for household work in a foreign land and unfamiliar with the language, within weeks she had lost two successive jobs in Lebanon - before the local agent forced her to work providing sexual services to men.
Just a month after leaving Nepal and badly traumatised, Karma is back home, recovering in a shelter for female migrant workers in Kathmandu where she receives counselling and medication.
"Approximately 25 percent of women who come to us have undergone some kind of sexual abuse or trauma," says shelter supervisor Satra Kumari Gurung.
"They struggle to cope with what's happened. They're extremely withdrawn. Recovery is one day at a time."
Abuse and exploitation
In 2012, Nepal's government banned women under 30 from working as domestics in Gulf states amid concerns about abuse and exploitation, and in April this year stopped issuing work permits following the repatriation of three dozen women from Lebanon - which officials say is an interim measure as they look into solutions to ensure the safety of female migrant workers.
But rights body Amnesty International believes these policies have increased the risks women face by encouraging them to migrate through informal channels that expose them to greater exploitation.
"You can't stop them," says Dr Gurung. "The day of the decision women migrant workers flew for foreign destinations from the international airport. Who's keeping count of those travelling through other channels?"
One of those exploited women was Tula Subba, 32, who recalls how she was an easy target for unscrupulous brokers that scour Nepal's villages for unsuspecting women to lure into forced labour.
|Government poster on safe migration for women [Ramyata Limbu/Al Jazeera]
Displaced by the Maoist rebellion that afflicted the country from 1996–2006, Subba's family abandoned their fields and village shop in the east of the Himalayan nation for the southern plains bordering India, where work prospects were few and income limited.
Before long she had joined a group of girls who travelled overland to India accompanied by an agent then flew to Kuwait.
She spent a year with a family before returning home on the pretext of ill health - with no money and only her ticket paid for. Constant haranguing and violent outbursts by her employer took a heavy toll on her mental and physical health.
"I could no longer cope. I had to get out," she told Al Jazeera.
Faced with a similar situation, Sita Chettri (name changed), 32, slipped out of the house in Kuwait where she had been working for nine months and made her way to the Nepalese Embassy as she had been instructed in Kathmandu.
Within two months at a shelter supported by the Nepalese government - occupied by up to 300 women awaiting repatriation at a time - she had regained weight and recovered her spirits.
She abandoned any thought of finding another employer when she saw dead bodies of workers being brought to the embassy and heard the extent of abuse some women had endured.
"I don't want to die. I have young children," she told Al Jazeera.
But Chettri has mixed feelings about returning home."I’ve no money, no gifts, nothing for my young son. People are bound to talk."