A year after the devastating earthquakes in Nepal, Swiss, Lausanne-based NGO Norlha is placing women at the heart of the recovery.
“I thank God the earthquake took my plastic tunnel – used for sheltering crops – and not my family,” says Ambika Gurung, sending the room packed full of women into peels of laughter. The relief is still tangible in this community that so recently cheated death.
When the earthquakes struck Nepal in April and May 2015 they were of a devastating magnitude – at least 8,800 people were killed, more than 22,000 were injured.
When women share stories, things happen
Ambika is a member of Norlha’s farming project in Thulogaun and also participates in the gender awareness group, just like all of the women here. They have been gathered together in a community centre by Norlha, a Lausanne-based NGO, so they can share their experiences post-earthquake and their views on the projects run by Norlha. Their views and feedback are critical. Norlha believes these women are key to any post earthquake strategy and the real force for sustainable development.
The plastic tunnel, Ambika mentioned, was the greenhouse Norlha provided as part of its Sustainable Agriculture and Livelihood Security project (SALS) in Rasuwa district. This area and Dhading, where Norlha has operated since 2013 were two of the worst hit. Every villager knew a relative, friend or neighbour who died; 90% of buildings were destroyed including homes, schools and health centres; access to food and safe water was disrupted and many Norlha greenhouses were damaged. Ambika’s harvest last spring was wiped out. Now she is growing vegetables once more with Norlha’s support. “We used to buy a lot of our food. Now we hardly buy any and we make money,” she says.
When women are educated husbands listen
Even before the earthquake, Norlha was designing its projects with women in mind. In Nepal it has extended this support beyond farming.
“Gender awareness programmes have had a huge impact on our husbands” says one woman in the video above.
Literacy and numeracy classes equip the women with the basic education they missed, as many girls leave school early to marry; they also learn about marketing their crops; while the gender awareness programme is teaching a community to see women in a new light. Kumari Tamang says the results are tangible; the men are now helping women with their heavy workload but the most important change is the women’s self esteem:
“We feel more considered, more respected. After the education course I took last year with the project, my opinion is considered by my husband, my in-laws and neighbours as a person in my own right.” Her group in Dandagaun manages to save money and uses it to pay for the children’s education. This positive result has led Norlha to set up a new project starting this year. It will support women in Gatlang, Rasuwa where almost a fifth of households are headed by women as men have been forced to seek work in the cities or abroad.
How tragedy can take people beyond where they were before
When these communities were still digging through the ruins left by the earthquakes, the question was how to rebuild them. Now, just over twelve months later, when life is largely back on track, the question is how to provide these people with a better future.
“We envisaged a reconstruction that would provide our beneficiaries with a better quality of life than before the earthquake, greater opportunities, and the capacity to prepare for any further disaster,” said De Tej Ghimire, head of Norlha’s regional office in Kathmandu.
The programme has been named Building Better Lives, Reconstructing Livelihoods or BBL.
Julien Bettler, Director of Norlha in Lausanne said the programme was about a new outlook as well as a new future: “It is about turning a tragedy into an opportunity, particularly for the women who are the backbone of rural Himalayan life.”
Seventy per cent of the farmers Norlha works with in Nepal are women, so Norlha’s policy of placing them at the heart of its projects makes good sense. It is a policy that pre-empts the Nepalese Government’s Post Disaster Recovery Framework that has just been published by the Nepalese Reconstruction Authority (NRA). It calls for gender mainstreaming and social inclusion as part of its recovery strategy to ensure women’s needs are addressed. It is part of a drive to guarantee that not only more resilient buildings but more resilient communities are built and a “more inclusive” society for women, the disabled and other marginalized groups.
Lighter roofs, fewer deaths
Concretely the NRA demands stronger, better constructed buildings, recommends measures to help the local population mitigate future disasters and sets out a vision of a more equal society offering greater economic opportunities.
Norlha had begun building a number of community facilities designed to withstand natural disasters in Thulogaun, Rasuwa and Tipling, in Dhading even before the NRA published its Recovery Framework. Harsh lessons were learned here, as Norlha’s regional director Dr Ghimire explains:
“In Thulogaun, most of the people who died were crushed beneath the weight of heavy stone roofs that collapsed. Now different, lighter materials will be used.”
Ninety per cent of buildings collapsed in the two districts. Norlha provided corrugated iron sheets to construct temporary shelters for more than a thousand people in Tipling, as part of its hastily implemented emergency relief programme.
Thousands of families are still in temporary homes today but are due to receive Government funding in the near future to rebuild. Progress has been slow up until now.
Meanwhile, Norlha has set up nine disaster preparedness committees in Tipling and helped reform the local disaster relief committee in Thulogaun, in line with Government thinking. Women again are encouraged to play a part in these organisations and influence decision-making.
Applying Swiss Alpine experience in the Himalayas
At its recent conference on empowering Himalayan women in rural communities held in Lausanne in April, Norlha outlined its commitment to turning its rapidly growing bank of knowledge and expertise acquired as a result of its approach to women into a shared resource. Professionals, academics and practitioners in the field would have access to a database of findings, the Centre for Women in the Himalayas for which it is currently seeking funding.
Swiss parliamentarian Olivier Français, addressed the conference, praising Norlha’s ground-breaking work:
“I welcome this commitment to promoting women’s rights in rural communities. I share Norlha’s vision and values,” he said.
Norlha believes in a bridge of support linking the Alps with the Himalayas. Mr Français drew on Switzerland’s experience of a little more than a century ago.
“In the Valais for example,” he said, “three out of four inhabitants scratched a living on arid, inaccessible land.” He added: “The men were often forced to leave their villages to work in the towns, abroad or on huge engineering projects such as dams or tunnels. The women were left alone to manage the family.” Life back then, he said, was not so different to that in the Himalayas today.
This sense of a shared understanding between two mountain peoples was never more apparent than after the earthquake. The Swiss gave generously. The mountaineer Jean Troillet from the canton of Valais, who once famously snowboarded down Everest, drew a big turnout to a fundraising evening for Norlha. The public contributed 17 million Swiss francs to an emergency fund launched by Swiss Solidarity, the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, of which 11 million was donated during a one-day telethon. These funds are distributed to agencies and NGOs working in the field. Thanks to a contribution from this fund, along with monies raised through its partners, members and private individuals, Norlha was able to deliver a rapid emergency relief and launch a recovery operation. By the autumn of 2015 and before the onset of winter, Dr Joep Slaats, head of operations for Norlha, was able to report:
“Every family under the responsibility of Norlha now has food and a temporary roof over its head.”
Changing women’s lives, changes village life
The next phase under the Building Better Lives project now requires further funds: “Every penny raised so far has been spent helping earthquake victims apart from a small amount which was allocated to repairs and reconstruction projects that are still ongoing,” explained Julien Bettler. At the same time Norlha is seeking funds for its Women’s Centre and the project in Gatlang. It believes by helping change the lives of women it can improve life in some of the poorest communities in the world.
In the community centre, rebuilt after the earthquake, one woman after another tells how she feels more respected than before or how the men now help in a way they never did before. Standing tall with all eyes fixed on her, Ambika Gurung sums it up simply.
“It has had a big impact on our lives. Village life has changed.”