One Year Later, Girls’ Voices Are As Critical as Ever In Nepal’s Earthquake Recovery Efforts

This post was written by Aparna Singh, Women LEAD’s Communication and Programs Associate, and Stephanie Arzate, Research and Communications Fellow

Imagine the longest fifty-six seconds of your life.

This is how I remember the April 25th Earthquake that struck Nepal exactly one year ago today. That Saturday morning, I was at the Women LEAD office facilitating a workshop with around fifteen girls in our year-long leadership program when the office began to shake violently. For a mere minute, we watched as the office swayed in every direction. By 11:57 AM, we emerged from the office to find that our country had changed forever, sometimes in ways that we could never imagine.

The April 25th Earthquake brought us closer to death than anything else many of us will ever experience, and unfortunately took away the lives, homes, and hopes of thousands of people. But amongst all the sorrow and pain that came from that tragic day, I remember seeing something that was truly magical. For a year, Women LEAD selects 30 high-achieving girls in the Kathmandu Valley and equips them with the skills they need to become leaders in their communities. The Nepal Earthquakes presented our program participants, or “LEADers,” with the ultimate test. After a couple of days, Women LEAD’s work resumed—albeit slightly differently—and I watched as the girls in our program, both past and present, sprung into action. 

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Program alumni, Sujata, distributes supplies following the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes

The leadership displayed by the girls in this devastating time was truly amazing. Women LEAD staff and alumni prepared basic supplies to distribute to the LEADers, staff and families affected by the earthquake. Two of our alumni, Reeti and Samikshya, established the “LEAD Education Relief Project,” which provided study kits to high school seniors who had lost their books during the earthquake, but were facing rapidly approaching exams. Saniya, a 2013 LEADer distributed mosquito nets and flashlights to 53 families in one of the hardest hit districts in Nepal: Sindhupalchowk. And 2012 LEADer, Sujata, launched a crowdrise campaign and raised over $500 to sponsor school uniforms, textbooks, stationery, and exam fees for 10 students affected by the earthquake. In a time when the voices and needs of many individuals were not being heard, these girls stepped up and became the inclusive, responsible leaders Nepal needed. 

EQ Blog Image 2
Participants collecting and distributing supplies to those in need.

When I look back on how far we’ve come since that day, I can’t help but to think about time. In fifty-six seconds, we lost over 8,000 lives. In  fifty-six seconds, centuries-old temples turned to rubble. In  fifty-six  seconds, everything changed. And yet, while the exact moment of impact was short, a year has not given us enough time to recover. Just months after the earthquake, Nepal faced a blockade that prevented a shortage of fuel, food, and vital supplies from coming into the country. It took the  National Reconstruction Association (NRA) over nine months to begin post-earthquake reconstruction effort. Women’s rights activists have urged that the NRA, which oversees the country’s rebuilding process, have more women involved to ensure the needs of women and children are heard, with little success. Meanwhile, reports have found that incidents of violence against women have increased and thousands of children, mostly girls, have been trafficked since the earthquake

In many ways, what we’ve seen a year since those devastating fifty-six seconds in Nepal has been a leadership failure. And what I’ve learned in the time since the April 25th earthquake is that women and girls must be key players in the reconstruction of our country moving forward. As Samikshya powerfully told us, “Girls’ voices in Nepal’s earthquake relief efforts are important because without their voices, the problems of many survivors cannot be heard.” Like Reeti, Samikshya, Sujata, and Saniya prove, girls’ voices in Nepal’s earthquake relief efforts are as vital as ever. 

Featured image credit: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi / UNDP Nepal.

Originally published on Women LEAD.

Global Displacement at a Record High – Even for Expecting & New Mothers

Over 42,000 people fled their homes every single day in 2014, the UN refugee agency UNHCR reported in the release of their annual report last week.

The number of displaced people in the world today has hit an all time high due to war and conflict, amounting to almost 60 million people – half of them children. If all these people formed a country, it would be the 24th largest and more than 6 times the population of my home country, Sweden.

So, what actually happens to people who have been forced from their homes and away from their every-day lives?

Most are displaced within their country or in neighboring countries, where life is on hold at a refugee camp – without access to basic necessities and activities, like jobs and education. The majority of refugees don’t find a safe haven in Europe or other western countries, and only a small number of people have the option to take the risky, if not deadly, journey across the Mediterranean.

In the example of Syria, Hans Rosling explains it well:

Last year Save the Children reported that the average refugee situation lasts 17 years and now UNHCR says that at this rate the global situation is likely to worsen.

In situations of war, conflicts, persecution and even natural disasters women and girls pay an even higher price. Sexual violence is used as a tactical weapon of war and in refugee camps women and girls face a high risk of rape, other forms of sexual violence and early marriage. Furthermore, the lack of infrastructure and health systems leave refugee populations without access to basic health care.

Mother and Newborn
Photo Credit: Gates Foundation on Flickr

Pregnant and breastfeeding women cannot put their and their babies’ lives on hold. Life is just beginning and these women have an incredible need for maternal and newborn health services, as well as a nutritious diet for themselves and their babies.

UNFPA estimates that almost half a million Syrian women are pregnant. In Nepal, Save the Children estimates that 21,000 women were in their third trimester when the earthquake struck. Being in the last stages of pregnancy is tough, physically and psychologically. As a woman your body is the lifeline for a new human being and you are the one foremost responsible for the well-being of your little one – but without access to basic services and support this is almost impossible!

The number of displaced people is now at a record high, and so is the number of expecting and new mothers who have been forced away from what they had hoped would be a safe place for their new babies.

As we urge our leaders to take critical action to address wars, conflicts and natural disasters, we must ensure that maternal, newborn and adolescent health is a crucial and central part of their response.

Learn more and join the conversation next Tuesday as we discuss how to respond to women’s and children’s health needs in crisis situations with partners Save the Children, Women LEAD Nepal and Edna Adan Hospital Foundation. 

GGHangout

Here are a few things you can do today

Featured Image Photo Credit: Gates Foundation on Flickr 

Media Misrepresentation

Media is a powerful mechanism to spread information. Whether they are fashion models, sport stars or celebrities, the media promotes figures who become role models for young people. This is particularly true for young girls. Celebrities and other “role models” often become a misrepresentation of reality.

Young girls receive mixed messages which often place expectations on them to be beautiful, girly and appear as fragile. In my country of Nepal, young women are flooded with messages from the media pressuring them to have the smallest waist, lovely long hair and a fair complexion. The gorgeous photos of young women on magazines, advertisement banners and other media are beautiful. However, these often unattainable photo shopped images create unnecessary pressure on young women. Young women often go to great lengths to achieve the media’s version of beauty. The result? Many girls develop eating disorders, those with fair skin apply various beauty products while the deemed “unpopular” girls try to reduce the size of their skirts so they will be noticed. Why?

The media sends the message to young women: Our value exists in our bodies.

Media has devalued the existence of women. Women are expected to be flawless. Young women are viewed as sex objects rather than as valuable human beings. I have met so many young women who struggle with depression, lack of confidence and do not believe they can be leaders in our society. In fact, in Nepal, if a young girl exercises leadership she is viewed as someone who is too independent and does not care about her family. Due to the influence of media, men are taught to think they have power over women. While this view is slowly changing, in Nepal media misrepresentation exacerbates existing gender inequalities for young women.

In the United States of America, the average young person watches over twenty hours of television a week. This statistic doesn’t include other forms of media and entertainment. Lack of technology in rural areas of Nepal reduces this number among Nepali young people. However, in urban areas like my home city of Kathmandu young people are heavily influenced by media culture on a weekly basis. Media misrepresentation is a sensitive topic but a crucial one. People must be aware of how the media culture is shaping both young women and men. It is high time we raise our voice against media misrepresentation.

Cover Photo Credit: John Meadows, Flickr Creative Commons

Keep Women and Girls in Nepal Safe

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Last October, I began a journey through the remote Langtang Mountain range in Nepal. The purpose of my visit was to experience how women of all ages are rallying their communities against the issue of trafficking. Historically, in this area of Nepal, trafficking is the main source of income for many families. In fact, in many communities, there are no girls over the age of twelve. They have all been sold to brothels in India and taken to other areas in Nepal. It is difficult to imagine young girls being used and traded as commodities rather than valued as worthy human beings. I began to understand the issue more as I realized the history of the Tamang people. The Tamang people in Nepal have not  been valued for generations. Tamang are not allowed to hold government jobs and are treated as lower-class citizens. From an anthropological perspective, this gave me a clearer understanding as to why slavery has been the only economic option for those living in these remote regions. When I visited this community last year, I found the promise of hope. A locally-led goat farming program was providing young girls with the opportunity to raise and sell goats rather than the girls being sold themselves. As a result, the health and well-being of many of these young girls and their families increased dramatically. Health and safety for young girls was provided through a relatively low-cost economic alternative.

IMG_0190Women, girls and children are considered among the most vulnerable populations in the world. They experience some of the most extreme health risks and the promise of safety is rarely an option. When I woke up on the morning of April 25th and learned the news about the earthquake in Nepal my heart sank. My mind immediately went to these young girls and their families. When a crisis such as war, disease, famine or a natural disaster occurs, the risks for women and children increases significantly. The Langtang Mountain region in Nepal was severely affected by the earthquake. Personal stories and accounts from colleagues revealed most homes and villages were destroyed in the region where only a few months ago I experienced such positive hope and change. This area is so remote it has been difficult for any help to reach the Tamang people living in the mountains.

The media frenzy surrounding the crisis in Nepal has made it difficult to know exactly what is happening and how we can work to empower women and girls in this country. We need to ask the question: In post-crisis, how can we continue to keep women and girls in Nepal safe? This is a multi-layered question and requires an integrated response both locally and globally. As an international community, I believe there are ways we can respond which are both empowering and will bring about lasting change for the health and well-being of women and girls.

Understand Increased Risks

When a crisis or natural disaster occurs, women, girls and children face increased risks to their health and safety. The earthquake in Nepal, left tens of thousands of pregnant women without medical care and exposed to the harsh elements. Similarly, according to the International Justice Mission, there is a heightened risk for displaced young women and children to be trafficked across the Nepal/India border. We must understand the increased risks in order to know how to mitigate those risks.

Empower Locally Led Solutions

While in Nepal, I, also, had the opportunity to lead a blogging workshop for one of Girls’ Globe’s featured organizations Women LEAD Nepal’s young leaders. I am inspired by their courage and strength through the crisis in Nepal. These young women are leading the way through providing locally-led solutions to surrounding communities. They have worked to empower young people and children through local partnerships building temporary learning centers for children living in some of the most severely affected areas. These amazing young women were featured in the Kathmandu Post as their relief efforts have also entailed education focused kits which include school books, calculators, pens and more to young people who have been working to prepare for exams in the midst of crisis. Locally-led solutions can bring lasting and sustainable change to improve the health and safety of women, girls and children living in post-crisis situations.

Use Your Voice for Change

When a natural disaster or crisis occurs in another country we can not always drop everything and physically go to help, nor is that always the best way to help either. Many who would like to help often think going is the first and only solution. While relief is an important part of the response it is not the only response. I believe one of the most powerful ways you can create change and keep women and girls in Nepal healthy and safe is through using your voice. The media buzz around the crisis in Nepal will eventually fade. Whether you are passionate about writing or enjoy sharing well informed posts through social media let’s continue to use our voices to keep the health and rights of women, girls and children in Nepal at the forefront of the conversation.

Nepal Earthquake: A Personal Reflection

Post Written by: Reeti, a Women LEAD young woman leader. The following are excerpts from Reeti’s personal blog The Black Caterpillar. Reeti reflects on the current situation in Nepal and the aftermath of Saturday’s earthquake. 

Reflection, Day 1 (Sunday, April 26th): 

Acouple of years ago I’d written a short story and it began like this:

I was standing there, strayed in the street, unnoticed amidst the crowd. My eyes were searching for something and someone. I fell down. Probably someone had pushed me. I tried to stand but somebody pushed me again so I fell really hard on the street once more. Cursing the fellow who pushed me, I finally stood up. I stretched and looked as far as I could but my family was nowhere to be seen. I did not know what to do. My eyes were wet, my heart was beating loud, my legs shaking. I did not know whether it was from nervousness or due to the shaking of the earth. Yes, the ground was literally shaking. Our city was hit by an earthquake. Everyone was running here and there, pushing every individual like bowling balls hitting pins. I was standing on the street like a lifeless statue. All the houses were collapsing. The people were shouting and children were crying. The street was filled with chaos.

I never imagined this piece of fiction would turn into a reality. Yesterday, Nepal was hit by a 7.9 Richter scale of earthquake and the aftershocks have still not ceased though it’s been more than 18 hours. There have been more than 25 aftershocks and the country is in great chaos.

At noon on Saturday when the earth started shaking vigorously, I was at Patan Durbar Square, a place known for culture assets and listed as UNESCO world heritage site. I held a bench cemented in the ground and within seconds watched my country’s asset turn into dust. Everything started collapsing in front of my eyes. I  thought it was the last day of my life. The scene was horrible and terrifying. People started screaming and crying. Buildings started collapsing and there was chaos all across Kathmandu.

I was there to meet a friend but we could not meet and I returned back with my dad. The motorbike ride from Patan to Jawalakhel was the scariest ride where I watched the destruction in the city first hand.

Nepal2
Photo Credit: Reeti

Many cultural sites have been damaged and 1,500 people have died with the death toll still rising as the ruins are being cleaned. The aftershocks have not stopped and there are chances of a larger earthquake occurring within 48 hours. My family and I are camping with many others outside for the night. We prayed for the rain not to pour down because everyone would be in distress.

The night was spent with sleeplessness, earthquakes and mosquito bites. And yes, gentle showers of rain for a couple of minutes. Ambulance sirens, anxious cries and the sudden angry roar of the earth are heard and felt frequently. Well for now, my friends and family are fine and though there has been destruction done to their physical infrastructures, no harm has been done to their health. So all we can do is stay put and pray for earthquakes to end.

Reflection, Day 2 (Monday, April 27th):

We have now had more than 80 aftershocks and it still has not ended. We are being told it will continue for 72 hours. As I am writing this, we have already experienced 2-3 more aftershocks measuring at 6.6 on the Richter scale. Now, after being hit many times, the gentle shakes do not even matter. We are camping outside in a field. The sun is extremely scorching and it is difficult for us. Yesterday night it rained heavily. We spent the night shivering and huddled together. We have had two sleepless nights and I do not know how many more are to come!

Reeti
Photo Credit: Reeti

I do not know what to say about this week. I am in utter shock. I have been hearing news about people dying, some known while others unknown.  I realize the worth of human life and understand anything can happen anytime.

Who would have thought this can happen to us?

I remember yesterday morning dancing to party songs and hula hooping, without any care in the world. Only a few hours later, I had left the house with such excitement of showing my friend around Patan Durbar Square. Who knew I would have to hold onto a bench and shake vigorously watching the entire thing turn into dust?

There have been many realizations about being prepared for natural calamity. I do not know about other realizations as my mind is really not working well and as there have been sleepless nights full of fear. Please pray for Nepal and if you want to help, there are links to my previous blog post. I will be updating soon when the internet is working well.

Women LEAD is committed to supporting our community in Kathmandu as they identify and respond in real time to their own communities’ most pressing needs. We ask for your support as we provide our staff and the 100 young women we’ve trained and mentored with the resources they need to effectively respond to this disaster. All funds donated to the “Nepal Earthquake Reconstruction Efforts” option under the list of programs will go directly to our leaders and the projects they choose to run to help their communities in this difficult time. We will need additional core funding as prices in Nepal rise and as we coordinate these efforts. If you wish to support our operations, select “Women LEAD” instead. 

Support Women LEAD Nepal’s Global Giving campaign

Menstrual Hygiene Explored: Dignity

Written by Guest Blogger Aditi Sharma, Founder and Chair of Kalyani 

This blog is part of Irise International’s #12DaysofChristmas Campaign.

Chhaupadi – The curse of menstruation

A woman died in the August floods in the far western region of Nepal this year – simply because she was menstruating. It may sound archaic and unreal but these kinds of incidents are not uncommon in mid and far west Nepal. Unfortunately, I have no reference for this piece of information. After hearing about it in the local radio news, I looked everywhere on the net and newspapers to see if anyone else reported the same. There was nothing. So did it not happen? Was it not worth making then news? Or is it just an example of how women are valued in the far western villages of Nepal?

Chhaupadi goth destroyed by the Moaists in efforts to abolish the tradition; Photo c/o Aditi Sharma
Chhaupadi goth destroyed by the Moaists in efforts to abolish the tradition; Photo c/o Aditi Sharma

According to the radio, the woman had been banished out of her house to the cow-sheds because she was menstruating, as part of an age old social tradition called ‘Chhaupadi Pratha’, while her entire family was well-sheltered at home. Chhuapadi Pratha is still widely practiced in the far-western region of Nepal where women are banished from their homes to the sheds during their monthly periods or childbirth. The sheds that women are made to live in, for 4-5 days during their regular menstruation and 11-15 days during childbirth, are made of mud, straw and grass. They are highly unhygienic, unventilated, unsafe, cold, dark and uncomfortable as they are hardly large enough to fit a grown adult. Menstruating women are considered untouchables and impure during this time. It is believed to be a bad omen for the menstruating women’s families and cattle if they live at home instead of the sheds. During a time when women need the most amount of care, they are not only deprived of nutritious food but are also forbidden to drink milk or pick fruits as it could cause milk-giving cows or fruit-bearing trees to die. Every year many women die in the Chhaupadi sheds due to hypothermia, pneumonia, snake bites, asphyxiation and even rape. Although, these incidences are reported in the news, there is a lack of proper statistics as to how many women are affected by the tradition of Chhaupadi.

The ordeal of menstruating girls doesn’t end there. Villagers reportedly accuse them of being possessed by evil spirits and extreme measures are taken by the local traditional healers, ‘jhakris’, where they allegedly beat girls in front of other villagers and use other forms of physical and verbal abuse.

A Chhaupadi goth(shed) in Accham district in Far Western Nepal; c/o Aditi Sharma
A Chhaupadi goth(shed) in Accham district in Far Western Nepal; c/o Aditi Sharma

All human rights derive from dignity and yet ‘dignity’ for women in these areas is a far-fetched idea. Humiliation and shame have always been a part of their lives. Being treated as bad luck and untouchables leave girls with little or no self-esteem. The position of women is clear from this video clip on Chhaupadi which shows a man from far west Nepal likening the women of the village to dirty cattle. Most women, unfortunately, have resigned themselves to this tradition and very few try to defend their right to equality, proper care and dignity.

Although Chhaupadi was declared illegal by the Government of Nepal in 2005, it is still openly and widely practiced almost all around the far west region and in some parts of the mid west region. Since the tradition has been around for centuries, it is deeply ingrained in society. There have been many campaigns against the tradition by I/NGOs and slowly some villages have abolished the tradition completely. However, government regulations and campaign efforts by I/NGOs are not enough. The most effective way to completely abolish Chhaupadi tradition is to educate young girls and boys, their parents and religious and other leaders at the community level about menstruation as a natural process rather than a taboo.

Want to know more about Chhaupadi Pratha? Watch this informative video from Al Jazeera:

Author's PhotoAditi Sharma has an MHP from the University of Sheffield. As part of her degree she completed a work related research placement with Irise International where she conducted a narrative review to explore the health and social impacts of menstrual hygiene in Nepal. She is currently working as a Research Associate for Green Tara Nepal (GTN) in association with the University of Sheffield in the Health Promotion Project. She is also the project lead for the Menstrual Hygiene Management Project run by GTN in Nawalparasi district of Nepal. She is also the founder and Chair of Kalyani – a recently established NGO that aims to empower rural Nepali women through sustainable livelihoods.

Cover image: Traditional healer with young girl; Photo c/o WaterAid