On April 25th, 2015, the worst disaster to strike Nepal in over 80 years came as an earthquake. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the earthquake lasted nearly a minute and its magnitude was even felt in surrounding China and India. Over 8,000 people were killed, over 16,000 people were injured, and nearly 3 million people were displaced. Just when it felt like things could not get any worse, a second earthquake struck Nepal a few weeks later. With continuing aftershocks striking daily and landslides cutting off many affected villages, panic and instability ensued.
While most of the media focused on the collapsing temples and buried bodies of Kathmandu, a much more hidden disaster was unfolding. Following a disaster, women and girls are one of the most disproportionately affected and vulnerable populations. It is typical in disaster situations to see increases in gender violence such as rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking, while the unique needs of women go largely ignored.
Because women are more likely to live in poverty and face barriers to resources, women also face undue burdens during recovery. Roles of women are not reduced following a natural disaster but instead are expanded – daily activities such as finding cooking oil, preparing food, fetching water, taking care of children and the elderly, become some of the most critical tasks for survival and grow increasingly difficult to conduct. To add to these struggles, the process of distributing aid is fraught with difficulties that often impede women instead of helping them. Many organizations distribute supplies and aid via a “head of household,” which can prevent single females from receiving such help and does not ensure that aid is evenly distributed across family members in cultures that may value males over females for survival. In fact, measuring relief distribution through the “family unit” may not accurately reflect who benefits within that unit.
What was I doing there?
Almost a year ago, I had worked with a rural village to propose a young women’s health empowerment project we aptly named “Girls Moving Mountains.” The idea was simple: provide a group of local girls with health education and economic stability incentives to improve overall community health and wellbeing. Given the current situation unfolding on the media, I knew that working on this project in the epicenter of the quake zone was going to be difficult.
The planned program would involve meeting regularly with the girls, who the village leaders would help select, and discuss health topics the village had identified as priority areas. In addition to receiving health information and engaging in discussions about leadership, these girls would also participate in an income generating activity in the form of a vegetable garden. This village had been chosen for this project for many reasons, including the fact that it had some of the worst gender disparities in Nepal. In fact, the district of Kumari was a known human trafficking hotspot as limited access to resources, poverty, and child marriage contributed to a situation where girls and women had little control over their lives, much less their own bodies. Now that the earthquake had caused 100% damage to all structures within the village and left the community with no relief options, I felt the priorities would shift even further away from girls’ health and wellbeing.
I assumed that many women and children would be left helpless, victims of a disaster that only exacerbated many of the underlying gender issues that already existed in countries around the world. This was not my first trip to Nepal. I had worked in Kathmandu the previous summer as a volunteer health educator to sexually exploited women and children – most of the individuals I had engaged with were currently trapped in compulsive prostitution. What I had seen that summer was indescribable. Women who were sold into prostitution by their own husbands to settle a liquor debt. Girls that had been gang raped by men for riding a public bus to go to school. One woman, whose husband had tried to kill her and tossed her body into the river for failing to bear a son, entered prostitution as a means of survival. After telling me her story, the president of the Nepali organization, Raksha Nepal, shook her head sadly. “She drinks everyday,” she said, “she wants to die.” I had witnessed firsthand what gender violence looked like in ‘average’ times, my heart broke when I knew what must be unfolding in the wake of the earthquakes. We had already begun to hear whispers about what was happening in the affected villages who were outside the eye of the media and not receiving aid. “Traffickers are coming to the villages,” my Nepali contacts warned, “they are posing as aid workers and taking the girls.”
I was right about expecting a difficult time in Nepal. The project I implemented in conjunction with the village, “Girls Moving Mountains,” was incredibly challenging in a disaster zone. Access to food and clean water was limited. Landslides blocked the only road into the village and instead, demanded a long, sweaty hike through the jungle. Daily aftershocks continued to bring down structures and terrorize an already traumatized population. The next three and a half months in Nepal would yield the most difficult, frustrating moments of my entire life.
“I assumed that many women and children would be left helpless, victims of a disaster that only exacerbated many of the underlying gender issues that already existed in countries around the world. “
However, I was wrong about women and girls being merely victims. I had arrived in Nepal expecting to be the “aid worker,” bringing outside help and knowledge to save the village. I had expected to find victims, paralyzed by the situation and waiting. Waiting for help, waiting for me. But what I found instead were survivors, liberators, and most of all, leaders. The girls and women I worked with in Nepal were indeed suffering greatly from the disaster and from their situations. These individuals were from the poorest areas of one of the least developed countries in the world. Many of them had lost everything – their homes, their food sources, even loved ones. However, they proved over and over again that they were not only taking charge of their own destiny but that they would be the ones to rebuild their communities from the ground up.
I witnessed this silent resilience in girls and women across Nepal. The women and girls I had previously worked with in Kathmandu, who had experienced crippling sexual abuse, immediately began their own aid distribution process. Using their established networks of female sex workers across Nepal, they began collecting aid in the city and distributing it to communities who needed it most. I traveled with a group of these women to Solokhumbu, Everest District, to deliver housing supplies to disabled families who were trapped due to landslide blockages. One of the women I hauled supplies with had her own special connection to this cause as she knew what it was like to be disabled. Five years ago her husband, in a fit of rage, doused her in petrol and lit her on fire. While she survived, her right hand, which is critical for most functions in Nepali culture, was lost. As we strapped loads to our backs and our foreheads to carry past the landslide, she took care to balance the supplies using only her left hand to steady herself.
Another girl, only 12 years old, ventured back into a place she had been forced to flee for her life. As a child, an older man had brutally sexually assaulted her. After publicly denouncing her rapist, the village demanded she be killed for her shame. Fleeing the village, she had been living in a shelter in Kathmandu for the past few years. After receiving news that her home village had been devastated by the earthquakes, she organized the only supply distribution to that very village. Over 60 families benefited from this distribution, with a small girl who had once been deemed ‘worthless’ leading the charge.
“It was the girls and their community who planted hope and resilience in the barren soil left from disaster. This project was never meant to be “my program,” and because it was led by the community, it has continued as a community endeavor long after I boarded my plane home.”
Learning from Local Leaders
While I participated with these various relief efforts stemming from women and girls I had once mourned as victims, I continued to run our planned program “Girls Moving Mountains.” Everyday, I met with a group of young women to discuss topics around health and human rights, as well as to plan our village greenhouse project. We would meet at 5 AM each day, before the sun came up, so the girls would still have time for their daily domestic chores that had only increased following the earthquakes. Although discussion of topics such as menstruation and family planning is largely taboo in most traditional villages in Nepal, my project site had boldly chosen these as a focus. This project hadn’t happened suddenly or easily, it took almost a year of planning and that was without knowing an earthquake was coming. Village leaders and local clinic staff led the efforts long before I even arrived on-site: recruiting girls to participate, choosing target topics to discuss, planning the greenhouse space, and securing support from the community itself. It was a bold project that never would have gotten off the ground if it was not lead and largely implemented by the community it sought to serve.
The girls of Girls Moving Mountains did not just show up everyday, they participated fully. Frantically scribbling into their small notebooks we had provided for them, they jotted down our discussions on health, empowerment, and leadership. The giggled when we washed our hands with soap for the first time. We chopped and hauled massive trunks of bamboo out of the jungle to start our greenhouse – a structure that would allow planting through the damaging monsoon season.
It was the girls who made this project happen and it was the community who facilitated the opportunity for change. In a way, I helped provide the seeds but it was the girls and their community who planted hope and resilience in the barren soil left from disaster. This project was never meant to be “my program” and because it was led by the community, it has continued as a community endeavor long after I boarded my plane home. Since I left, the girls have built an additional ten greenhouses in the Kumari. The village has written their own grant to an outdoor gear company, Cotopaxi, to secure the funds to continue running girls’ health programming. This last March, for the first time, the village celebrated International Women’s Day to commemorate the value of women in society. And Sumitra, one of the young women I was privileged to work alongside, is in-line to receive a full college scholarship from a U.S.-based Rotary Club.
In the end, I realized that I had made the same mistake that so many individuals and groups, most of them with the best of intentions, make when we see victims instead of leaders. In our humanitarian efforts, we, who are often from the privileged West, assume that we are saviors with all the answers and that those who need help are waiting for us to lead the charge. Vulnerable populations, such as women, are sidelined while the effort wages on without them. But when we treat women as victims instead of leaders, we further marginalize a group that is critical for real progress to occur. When I worked with Nepali women and girls following the earthquakes, I wanted to protect them. I wanted to say, “No, you sit over here and you wait while we fix this.” But that kind of mentality is flawed and even damaging to individuals and communities. Real, sustainable change comes from within communities because when the dust settles, and when the outsiders have gone, it is those communities who carry on development. It took an earthquake for me to see the potential and the resiliency that was already there the entire time.
“I had made the same mistake that so many individuals and groups, most of them with the best of intentions, make when we see victims instead of leaders. In our humanitarian efforts, we, who are often from the privileged West, assume that we are saviors with all the answers and that those who need help are waiting for us to lead the charge.”