When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, international attention quickly turned to this tiny country sandwiched between China and India – like “a yam between two boulders” as a local saying goes. More than 8,600 lost their lives in the tragedy, and more than 16,000 were injured.
One might think that a natural disaster such as an earthquake would impact people indiscriminately. And yet, even natural disasters are not gender neutral. Not only do natural disasters kill women more than men – in Nepal, 38% of those who lost their lives were women and 17% were girls, while only 30% were men and 14% were boys – the recovery process has a gendered dimension as well.
Disasters and crisis situations often exacerbate previously existing dimensions of marginalization, discrimination, and vulnerability. That is precisely what is happening today in Nepal. Even before the earthquake, women and girls in Nepal faced discrimination, violence, and additional day-to-day difficulties simply as a result of their gender. It is imperative that we consider the gendered dimensions of disaster when we think about supporting people through the relief and recovery phases. If not, we risk taking steps backwards.
Sanitation & Hygiene
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, relief poured into Nepal from around the world with everyone from governments and the biggest international agencies to local and foreign volunteer groups rushing to help. Food, water, medicine, and shelter were top priorities. Yet, what critical supply was often left out of health and hygiene packs? You got it – the thing all women need every month.
“They are not thinking about the sanitary pads. They are not thinking of the girls differently,” says Little Sisters Fund co-founder and executive director in Nepal Usha Acharya of most relief efforts.
As many as 500,000 homes were completely destroyed by the quake; still more sustained severe damage. Tents and makeshift shelters are a reality for many. Girls and women spending time in such open and insecure shelters are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. A local Nepali newspaper recently reported that a 5 year-old girl was raped in one tent camp.
Women and girls need gender-specific safe spaces and latrines, as well as camp management and security personnel who are trained to support and protect women.
Similarly, traffickers are also already taking advantage of the tenuous situation in Nepal, and exacerbating a trafficking rate that was already among the worst in the world before the quake. In a sign of how truly high the risk is, the government of Nepal recently enacted temporary bans on international adoptions (often a guise for trafficking) and children under 16 travelling without their parents. Unfortunately, enforcement may be difficult, and awareness-raising efforts and protection measures are needed to ensure that women, children, and especially young girls remain safe throughout the recovery and rebuilding process.
The earthquake occurred in context where already not all were children safe, in school, and learning, and the disaster complicates and exacerbates this challenge. The UN has estimated that some 32,000 classrooms were destroyed, leaving almost 1 million children without a school to return to. This number, however, does not include the many children whose families lost breadwinners, shops, crops, livestock, and other sources of income in the quake. For many, affording school fees, uniforms, and supplies will become more difficult or impossible, which presents the risk that Nepal will lose some of the progress it has made on education in recent years.
Girls are especially at risk, as they have historically been left out of and left behind in education, attending school and achieving at lower rates than males. Further, girls who are out of school are particularly susceptible to child trafficking, child marriage, and child labor. To prevent these injustices, it is key that schools re-open and that extra efforts be made to ensure girls return to school.
Finally, women and girls need to be heard! Their voices should come through loud and clear to direct aid, discuss recovery strategies, and prioritize rebuilding efforts. Only if the voices of the historically marginalized – including the half the population that is female – are heard can Nepal build back stronger.
What You Can Do
First of all, refuse to forget about Nepal and its women and girls just because the dramatic headlines and pictures of rubble have faded from the front pages. Continue to follow and share the news about Nepal. Finally, you can support organizations that take into account the specific needs, strengths, and perspectives of girls and women in Nepal. Little Sisters Fund is just one of a number of such organizations.
Since 1998, Little Sisters Fund has worked to create an environment where Nepal’s most vulnerable girls can empower themselves through access to education, mentoring, and community support. To follow our earthquake-related updates and join our extended family, please visit www.facebook.com/littlesistersfund