KATHMANDU, Aug 9, 2012 (AFP) - Nepal has banned women under 30 from travelling to Gulf countries to work following reports of widespread sexual abuse and exploitation, local media said on Thursday.
Thousands of women -- mostly aged under 25 -- leave the impoverished Himalayan nation every year to take up menial jobs in cleaning or construction, with many heading to Gulf Arab states.
"Young female workers are reported to have been sexually and psychologically exploited in Gulf countries," Information Minister Raj Kishor Yadav was quoted as saying in the Himalayan Times English-language daily newspaper.
"So the cabinet decided to set the age bar for women migrant workers in the Gulf. Women above 30 years of age are at low risk of such exploitation."
Nepalese women have been allowed to go to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar since 2010, when authorities lifted a 12-year ban imposed after the suicide of a Nepalese domestic worker who had been abused in Kuwait.
Most Nepalese migrant workers are in India but the government and local charities estimate that between 20,000 and 70,000 are in wealthy Gulf countries, lured by the promise of better wages to help support their families back home.
Maiti Nepal, which works to prevent the trafficking of Nepalese women abroad, welcomed the announcement, saying many underage girls travelled to the Gulf for work and abuse was common.
"We have met several housemaids who were not only raped by their masters but also forced to have sex with the masters' relatives. They are confined to the house and live in a situation akin to slavery," director Bishwa Khadka said.
There was an outcry in Sri Lanka in September 2010 when a maid returned from Saudi Arabia alleging that her employers had forced 24 nails and needles into her body.
Fifteen Nepalese women committed suicide in Lebanon in 2010 while two to three domestic helpers a week seek refuge in Nepalese embassies in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait following abuse from their employers, according to the Times.
The labour ministry was not immediately available for comment.