Women in Nepal after the earthquake
It is now three years since the earthquake in Nepal, and women have successfully rebuilt their houses and rehabilitated their communities with the help of foreign aid. In a country still suffering in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster, women are now challenging the beliefs that had previously led to harmful practices against them.
Menstruation is still a taboo
Severe human rights abuses such as child trafficking, early marriage, and a general lack of respect due to perceived social inferiority have plagued women in Nepal. Deeply ingrained religious beliefs mean that women and girls are viewed as ‘unclean’ while on their periods. This has a damaging effect on a woman’s mental state, hygiene, social life and, in the worst cases, can even lead to death.
The practice of Chhaupadi forces women and girls into isolated cowsheds during their menstrual cycle, during which they are not allowed to interact with other people, even family members, or to touch certain foods. Living this way for five to seven days every month can cause serious harm and leads to high drop-out rates from school. This past January a woman died of smoke inhalation after creating a fire to keep warm during her monthly banishment.
Despite its official ban in 2005, Chhaupadi is still being practised in remote villages especially in the mid and far western regions of Nepal. The Kathmandu Post revealed that 60 per cent of people in the Karnali region, for example, are unaware that Chhaupadi is illegal. The slow nature of the change perhaps has its roots in the devastating earthquake of April 2015 that froze progress for a time.
‘Resilience, inclusivity, equality are human rights that women in Nepal have successfully fostered’
With a magnitude of 7.8, the Gorkha earthquake affected approximately eight million people, and 327,000 female-headed households were forced into temporary shelters. In some districts affected by the earthquake, a total of 70 per cent of households are headed by women. Men seek work opportunities abroad (often in the Middle East and India), leaving their wives in charge of the family, land and households. With little or no access to proper hygiene facilities, Nepal’s problem with menstruation was initially made worse. In the earthquake, at least 498,852 houses were destroyed; 2.8 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, of which 1.1 million were children in need of urgent assistance.
Before the earthquake, suicide rates for women in Nepal were already very high, ostensibly due to a woman’s restricted choices in life, and damaging menstrual hygiene practices. The World Health Organization states that ‘being a female [in Nepal] is a risk factor for developing depression or anxiety disorders.’ After Gorkha, suicide rates increased for both men and women, and it seemed that opportunities for women would cease to be a priority.
On the other hand, the earthquake helped place Nepal’s gender issues on the international agenda. Humanitarian aid flooded in from all parts of the world including China, Bangladesh, Germany, Bhutan and Egypt. This transformed Nepal’s disaster into a global issue. Compared to the last earthquake in 1934 (magnitude 8.0), the response to Gorkha demonstrates how interconnected the 21st century world is.
Although it is true that the immediate effect of the earthquake exacerbated existing social inequalities in Nepal – as is the case with most natural disasters – three years later women have proved that this will not remain the case forever. While neighbouring India is still fighting to ban honour killings, society in Nepal is starting to completely revive the role of its women.
Women rebuilding their communities
At the Women in Construction conference in March 2018 in Kathmandu, a representative for UN Women suggested that in spite of the earthquake, this has been an ‘unprecedented year for women’s rights’, confirming how women in Nepal have transformed a natural disaster into a breeding ground for positive development. ‘Resilience, inclusivity, equality’, the UN Women spokesperson promised, ‘are human rights that women in Nepal have successfully fostered’. The irony of the disaster, therefore, is that it has encouraged these processes of change.
As part of the German Society for International Cooperation’s Recovery Program Nepal (RPN), women in earthquake-affected districts have been targeted as the most important group for rehabilitation. As a result, RPN introduced training in carpentry, masonry and earthquake-resistant building, specifically designed for women. Three years after Gorkha, women have successfully rebuilt their houses. Across Nepal, women are no doubt responsible for similar reconstructions independent of aid organisations, but RPN is ensuring that the strength of these women is recorded internationally.
Another aspect of the RPN’s recovery efforts is to support sanitary pad production. Women in the Semjong and Nuwakot districts (categorised post-earthquake as ‘crisis hit’ districts) constructed a cooperative building with their own hands. Pink and powerful, the building is assembled using interlocking bricks, which is an environmentally friendly alternative to the kiln-based production of bricks usually used for construction in Nepal. Walking into this building constructed by women, for women, and into a laboratory where the production of cheap, green and clean sanitary pads is in full swing, has an inspiring effect. The pads themselves are biodegradable and their clean disposal is allowing women and girls in villages to openly talk about menstruation management. Even without the context of the taboo of menstruation in Nepal, the women’s cooperative still feels like bravado of rural feminism. Three years ago, the natural disaster foreshadowed a dystopia, but in the present it seems that women in Nepal have made their lives better from the prospect of nothing.
Mothers' groups in Rasuwa
In Syabru Besi, a remote village in the national park of Langtang (and also a working district of RPN), Chessum Lama, the principal of the local school, discusses the disaster of three years ago: ‘It was horrible because there are more women in this village than men, and afterwards we were the ones who had to take care of everything.’
Establishing a ‘mother’s group’ after the earthquake, Chessum and 20 other women in Syabru meet twice a week to discuss waste management and the prevention of child-trafficking, and to promote an open community dialogue between all castes and ages in their village. High up in the Himalayas, where this previously marginalised group of people farm using cattle and terracing, women are generating progressive solutions to protect themselves, and to reduce plastic waste.
‘We lost a lot in the earthquake,’ Chessum states, crossing her legs under her traditional Tamang skirt, ‘my daughter was so traumatised that she couldn’t go to school. The mothers’ group started talking about ways to help daughters overcome the trauma of the aftershocks. And now my girl is back in school.’
Chessum works in the newly reconstructed primary school nearby (built by RPN with Norwegian funding). She speaks eloquent English and conversational German, and although she has many reservations about her culture’s negative aspects, she is proud of her traditional upbringing. Stepping over the damaged sidewalks covered in earthquake debris, she remarks, ‘There’s still a lot of recovering that needs to be done. But who will do it? We will do it?’ ‘We’ could imply the female population of Syabru, but also that of the entire country.
The two mothers’ groups operating in the Rasuwa region are called Gosaikunda and Himalay and were formed as a response to the collapse of women’s rights after the earthquake. They now actively promote an open dialogue between women in their villages. Demonstrating their autonomy in relation to foreign aid, men, or the government, women like Chessum reclaim the power of reconstruction. In this country sandwiched – and often overlooked – by China and India, women are strong. They have responded to the earthquake and the misery it brought about as an opportunity to combat gender stereotypes dynamically.
Talking about how the earthquake affected the Rasuwa district the most, Chessum argues that this was because aid was diverted to the district of Gorkha, since three politicians were trapped there. Raising her own hand, she states, ‘No one raised a finger for Rasuwa.’ It seems that no one needs to anymore, since women here have raised their arms, legs, and entire bodies in order to support themselves and the rest of their damaged communities. Supportive of Chessum, health teacher Dcchechum Lama deals with menstruation and sexual health issues with her students: ‘The kids are starting to feel less embarrassed about talking about these kinds of things.’
It is a national shame that it has taken such a long time and a large-scale natural disaster to open up these gender-centred issues, but it confirms that Nepali culture is open to change. Women here are self-empowering. Since the earthquake, three women have already assumed high-level political roles in five different government positions. This is an important case study for the rest of the world that rightly sees women as the most vulnerable group in a post-disaster world, but rarely moves past that perception. The liberties that Nepali women are beginning to enjoy are fundamental human rights. But while the Western world is standing up for gender through social media platforms and ‘Me Too’ hashtags, Nepali women are reclaiming their rights by rebuilding the houses that were destroyed in the earthquake and unravelling detrimental social taboos, one brick and sanitary pad at a time.