What Next For The Women Of Nepal?
The Debrief: What happens when natural disasters hit a society where gender discrimination is already a life-threatening problem?
In April of this year, deep beneath the mountains of Nepal – a developing country of 27.8 million people – two plates of the earth started to rub against each other. When this happens, it’s not just bad news – it’s an earthquake.
This one had a 7.8 Richter magnitude and the consequences on a country which is already pretty isolated was devastating, killing more than 9,000 people and injuring over 23,000.
Before the earthquake struck, conditions for women in Nepal were already some of the harshest in the world. And so with recent reports that gangs based in India have been trafficking women from earthquake-struck Nepal to the Gulf where, according to The Guardian, ‘they were forced into manual labour and sex work,’ what does the future look like for Nepalese women, three months on?
According to the UN Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, in countries where gender discrimination is tolerated, women and girls are made particularly vulnerable by natural disasters.
‘Not only is the percentage of women and girls who die higher in these countries,’ says the report, ‘but the incidence of gender-based violence – including rape, human trafficking and domestic abuse – is also known to increase exponentially during and after disasters.’
While the loss of crops, homes, hospitals and roads threaten everyone’s very existence, they’re particularly dangerous if, even when Nepal was fighting fit, you’ve been on the back foot. At its very best, with Nepal’s population scattered across isolated mountain-side villages, women would go into childbirth without easy access to medical help, most women would only ever work in the home and were, therefore, poorly educated, plus they had little control over whatever money they actually owned.
With 55% of those killed by the earthquake and its subsequent aftershock of 7.3 on the Richter scale being women and children, it’s impossible to know how many others lost their homes or have been otherwise affected by the disaster. It is known, though, that as Nepal picks up the pieces, women and girls have sadly been left behind again. Sexual violence and attempted rape has been reported in shelters across Kathmandu to such an extent that Nepalese police are now training women and girls in self defence.
It’s easy to assume that women’s rights in Nepal have always been poor, but the pictures isn’t so simple. ‘Part of my work at the Department of Education was on an equity strategy and implementation plan,’ says Yvonne Lee, who worked with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) as a Gender and Education Adviser for the Nepal’s Department of Education (DoE), a few miles away from Kathmandu.
‘That was for girls in education, disabled people and marginalised castes. It had made me quite hopeful,’ she said.
One of Yvonne’s last projects in Nepal was setting up the Sisters for Sisters programme, funded by DFID and the Million Rs Fund to promote the Girls’ Education Challenge.
‘It was about combatting school-related gender-based violence,’ says Yvonne. ‘Often girls aren’t safe even on their way to school. So we trained girls to look after and mentor smaller girls through school. It was a way to resist child marriage, and to attend school rather than work or look after the family.’
According to VSO, 42.6% of Nepalese women are illiterate with an average of just one year’s schooling. Programmes like Sister for Sister, which ran in 48 schools across six districts, had started to address the situation. In January, the Bagmati Transport Entrepreneurs Association launched a women-only minibus service in Kathmandu to try to counter the fact that around a quarter of young women in Nepal had been subjected to sexual harassment on public transport. In 2005 the practise of ‘chaupadi’, under which menstruating women were forcibly banished from the family home, was finally outlawed.
‘There have been girls education programmes, health rights organisations, programmes to help women get access to health services. But now those funds are being redirected towards the earthquake,’ says VSO volunteer Cath Nixon who lived in Dailekh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and worked as a public health nurse.
‘Access to maternal health care, a safe place to deliver a baby and post-natal care are all going to be affected by the earthquake. The rebuilding of that basic infrastructure is going to happen first before long-term projects like women’s rights can be addressed. So it puts everything back.’
However, Cath does have some optimism about the future. ‘At the moment Nepal has a 33% quota for women to participate in all political structures right from the village level up to ministerial level. Sometimes that does create an environment of tokenism.
‘But we do know that when women are able to influence decisions made in their local community, they’re able to prioritise things such as access to safe drinking water, maternal health, access to contraception and schooling. Having women in leadership positions means they can put women’s problems on the agenda.’
As a report by the UN Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery puts it: ‘Disasters can also provide an opportunity to redress gender disparities. For example, during the recovery period following a disaster, longstanding biases against women can be challenged by programmes that are sensitive to their needs and that involve them as equal partners in recovery work.’
We can only hope that during Nepal’s slow, chaotic recovery, the rights of women do not slip, irretrievably, out of reach.
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