The 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 25 April 2015 created physical and social upheaval in Nepal. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, the risk of gender-based violence, trafficking, domestic violence, child marriage and sexual abuse increased.
However, the aftermath of the earthquake also created a space for social transformation that would otherwise have taken decades. Women and girls felt compelled to get back to normal, which led them to challenge and transgress traditional gender roles and norms.
Girls hit worst by quake
In Nepal, women represent 51 percent of the total population and, when the earthquake struck, there were far more female causalities than male. This was largely due to the gendered roles that confined women to indoor chores. They were also disproportionately affected in the days and weeks following the disaster, with lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, psychosocial support and protection, as well as little opportunity to ‘build back better’ being some of the most obvious issues they faced.
With this in mind, we focused our response on addressing the specific needs and challenges of women and girls and on supporting them to get their voices heard. We provided space, support and employment opportunities that made it possible for them to actively rebuild their own lives and look to creating a better and more prosperous future for themselves and their families.
For example, by creating adolescent-friendly spaces, we were able to respond to the specific needs of adolescent girls and women with regard to sexual and reproductive health and menstrual hygiene, which are taboo subjects here in Nepal.
Community helped protect at-risk groups
We also promoted protection issues by creating community awareness campaigns, setting up anti-trafficking booths, and establishing community watch groups. Girls and women were the most at-risk, and these watch groups were designed to address trafficking and child labour issues with members receiving training on child rights, protection and anti-trafficking initiatives to help them refer vulnerable children and adolescent girls to protection services.
Of particular note is that fact that women also started to take up work that was traditionally carried out by men, such as mason training and opening up their own businesses and shops – trades that they would not have thought of taking up before the disaster.
Due to numerous socio-cultural and economic barriers, as well as patriarchal gender attitudes and norms, adolescent girls’ active participation in such activities was traditionally heavily restricted.
Skills training increased opportunities
Young women also benefited from vocational training through our targeted livelihood programs. This involved training in things like poultry farming, goat-keeping, pig farming and vegetable production - which were previously only done for household consumption rather than generating income – as well as tailoring and weaving using traditional handlooms.
In addition, life-skill classes, emergency preparedness and resilience-building, have all increased women’s and girls’ voices, representation and participation in decision-making at various different levels.
However, taking up non-gender-stereotypical work was challenging, as can be seen from the fact that out of a total of 851 masons trained only 61 were women. This was due to the low level of education and literacy among women, as well as previous experience being part of the selection criteria.
Other factors were their low self-confidence as a result of age-old patriarchal norms and values, existing deep-rooted gender inequalities and barriers to entering the ‘male domain’ of gendered work.
Shift in perceptions of gender roles
However, there has been a notable shift and acceptance for women participating in non-gender-stereotypical activities. Case studies from the field show that the women who did train as masons have gained confidence, and their new skills have become a source of hope for them to continue this work as a means of earning a living. In addition, many women and girls have reported that their opinions are now more valued and that they are aware of their rights.
Women who trained as masons have gained confidence, and their new skills have become a source of hope
Although it is too early to say that there has been a significant change in women’s status and value in Nepal overall after the earthquake, what is clear is that disaster response should go beyond simply providing food and shelter, to incorporating proper gender analysis so that the projects do not exacerbate or perpetuate gender disparities.
The focus of relief and recovery should be on reducing disparities where possible, addressing the specific needs and challenges of women and girls, and empowering women and girls so that they are able to realise and achieve their fundamental human rights.