Women’s voices after the Earthquake

Mid of May 2015, Wendy, staff of the Nanjing headquarters joined Amity’s disaster relief team in Nepal. During her stay she conducted several interviews with women investigating their post-disaster situation and needs. Women belong to a risk group after natural disasters. NGOs are more and more aware of their specific situation, the dangers they are exposed to, but also in particular on their contributions after natural disasters. Read Wendy’s experience report, which gives the women of Nepal a voice. Thereby, this report contributes to the assessment and debate about the women’s situation and role in the period of post-disaster recovery.

(By Wendy Wu)

After the magnitude 8.1 earthquake on April 25th, Nepal was rocked by another earthquake of magnitude 7.5 on May 12th. Aftershocks continued, leaving people homeless and living in a constant state of anxiety. Men and women went through the same trauma and yet the burden which they bear is different. Therefore, we wanted to hear what women had to say and so visited some of Kathmandu’s larger camps for displaced people.

After the second earthquake struck, cracks, big and small, appeared in several buildings, which had withstood the first earthquake, showing that they were now unsafe. Even if the buildings were still okay, a lot of people were scared and did not dare spend their nights indoors. And so Kathmandu’s temporary shelters were packed, filled with homeless people or people who still had a home but who could not return there. The first time we visited the camp, we were limited in our conversations to those who could speak English, because of the language barrier.

Under a nearby tarpaulin sat a young woman wearing a red top. She responded to my English greeting with confidence, and agreed to my request for an interview.

Women washing clothes in a Kathmandu refugee camp (left). Wendy Wu is interviewing displaced women in the camp (right).

She said that 15 member of the family are staying under this tarpaulin. Because of the two successive earthquakes, big cracks had occurred in their house, and they did not think they should stay there for the time being. So the whole family was here. They could not buy a tent and did not know where they could get one, so they were just staying under this tarpaulin. It was hard to make sure everyone had enough to eat each day. Her parents had already left early in the morning looking for whatever they could get. She was helping by taking care of her two little brothers. As we were talking, the older of the little brothers curiously looked me up and down, while the younger boy climbed nearby.

Before the earthquake, she would attend university classes from 7am until 9.30am, then at 10am she would begin a busy day at work. She was at work when the second earthquake struck. At the time, she was terrified, but not as badly as the first time, and was soon able to calm herself down. I asked her what were her most pressing needs; she thought for a while then answered. She was okay, she said, but her parents were under much pressure, with both having to keep their family safe as well as trying to maintain some semblance of ‘life as normal’. She did not know how to share the burden with her parents; all she could do was to care for her little brothers. There were no classes for the moment, nor did she need to go to work, so there wasn’t really much to do during the day.

Not far from the large family sat a mother and son. They did not even have a tarpaulin, and just sat on bedding folded on the grass. I was surprised that it was not the son who responded when I greeted them in English, but the mother. I guessed her to be about 50 years old, which is why I was surprised. Women in that age group here are usually not good in speaking English, so I figured that she must be well-educated.

Many of the families lack of shelter after the earthquake.

Her older son is working in India, this mother explained, and her younger son is planning to go abroad to study. He is waiting on his visa. Their home was not badly affected by the first earthquake and so they had not taken many precautions again future quakes. This is why they didn’t even have the basic necessities like a tent or waterproof clothes when the second quake hit. Now she had to sleep out in the open side-by-side with her mother and son, enduring the cold and insect bites. She did not mention a husband, so I wondered if she was divorced or widowed. I did not have the courage to ask.

I asked her how she felt at the time of the two earthquakes. She said that when each earthquake hit, it was her younger son that she worried about most. She was terrified, but as soon as she thought about her son, courage welled up in her and she did everything she could to protect her boy. As she spoke, her son snuggled up by her side – it was a touching scene.

It is really dangerous in Nepal right now, so why did she not flee to India and stay with her older son? It is reported that many people who had the resources to leave Kathmandu after the first earthquake struck did so, leaving their homes far behind. She smiled as she explained that this is her home, that she still has relatives here, and that she doesn’t want to leave. Yet her greatest hope now is that her younger son will get his visa very soon and will be able to leave the country and be safe. For herself, though, no matter how dangerous the situation, she’d rather stay here.

She is both a daughter and a mother, and each of these roles brings great responsibilities. She did not want her photo taken because she wanted to protect her child. We have great respect for this mother.

Once it was daylight, many people folded up their bedding and prepared to head home. Most of those who remained behind were there because their homes were too badly damaged and there was no way they could stay there. Some people had not even been able to find temporary shelter and had stayed on the side of the road.

After sleeping outdoors people return to their homes in the morning (left). People search shelter beneath tarpaulins on the side of the road (right).

Tundhikhel Square used to be one of Kathmandu’s main landmarks. Today, however, it is the location of Kathmandu’s largest collection of temporary shelters. After the first earthquake struck, people who had lost their homes came in from everywhere, looking for a place to stay. That is why humanitarian aid organizations from all over the world also set up bases here, providing material goods, medicines and medical treatment. The Nepali army is also present and ensures that order is maintained. After the second earthquake hit, even more refugees flooded into this area, and the government had no choice but to tighten control and limit how many people could stay here.

When we arrived, it just happened to be time for distribution of food by Khalsa Aid. In front of their tent, a long line of people waited to receive a free meal. I did not want to interrupt those who were eating, and so looked for a family which had already finished their meal. It was easier to have deeper conversations this time because a Nepali friend, Ashish, had volunteered to translate.

Ashish volunteered to translate for Amity.

Bishal is a 12 year old boy. His family of three is not from this area, his father came to Kathmandu to work on construction sites. He brought his wife and son and rented a place for them to live in. When the first earthquake hit, the whole family was at church. Thankfully, all 150 people who attended the church service were able to run outside, and nobody was killed. But both their house back in their hometown and the house they were renting collapsed. With nowhere else to go, his parents brought him here. According to Bishal’s father, more than 7,500 people are staying on Tundhikhel Square, with about 20-25 people in each tent, men and women all mixed in together. It is both crowded and chaotic.

We really wanted to hear what Bishal’s mother had to say about it all, but every time we asked her a question, her husband would answer for her. Several times, it seemed like she wanted to say something but then stopped. According to the Nepal Gender Profile published by the organization UN Women on May 5th, 2015, women still have a lower status then men. This is especially so where women lack financial resources of their own. The man traditionally deals with anything outside the home while the women run anything inside the home. As such, they do not have the freedom of speech, and hold a secondary role in the family. After a few rounds of attempting to talk with her, we gave up.

Once he knew that I hoped to interview a pregnant woman or the family of a new baby, Ashish did all he could to find such a person. He finally succeeded, which is how we came to meet the mother of Krisha, a three-month-old baby. They were staying in a blue tent which had been donated by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Government of Nepal.

Krisha’s mother explained that she was a tailor and that, before the earthquake, her husband had sold clothes. They had been doing okay in their life, moved from Kavre to Kathmandu and had rented a small house. When the first earthquake struck, they had all fled the house. Her family of three and several neighbors are now all living in this tent. There had been 17 people staying here, but then more came after the second earthquake. Now there are usually about 20 people staying here each day. Her husband had left the previous day and tries to do some business and care for the family’s needs, leaving behind his wife and baby. Thankfully the neighbors are all eager to help, because she would not have been able to care for her little baby daughter on her own.

Women and their children are especially exposed to dangers after natural disasters and require specific support.

While I was interviewing the mother, neighbors were changing Krisha’s napkin. I watched the lady take a piece of soft cloth and fold it up, then wrap it around Krisha. I was curious and asked if Krisha had enough napkins. That started the neighbor talking. She explained that it is really hard just now to get disposable napkins, which is why they are using pieces of cloth. They need to wash them quickly and change them. The problem is that there is an acute shortage of water in this place, and no way to wash napkins. So every afternoon she goes back to her former home, and ventures into the building which now stands at a precarious angle, to wash the napkins. It takes her three or four hours to get there and back. The worst part about it is that she knows that the building could collapse at any moment. She enters in fear and trembling each time. She explained her dilemma with an expression of helplessness.

When asked what were their most urgent needs, the women were eager to answer, each one speaking over the other: infant diapers, fresh clothes and somewhere to wash them, waterproof mats, pots, bowls, ladles and basins, somewhere to have a shower, and lots more. While they were speaking, Krisha started spitting up milk. A neighbor explained that it is because the temperature at night is cold, and sleeping on the ground means that you get sick easily. Apart from adequate nutrition, little Krisha doesn’t even have a suitable place in which to live.

After we left Krisha, we went to investigate Tundhikhel Square’s water and sanitation situation. The water truck had just arrived to refill the water tank. A worker explained to us that the water truck holds 6,000 liters, and they need to come once or twice a day, depending on the specific needs. A couple of boys had run across to brush their teeth because they wanted to make the most of the water.

Next to the water tank, another NGO had set up toilets and showers. There were five each for men and for women. This is nowhere close enough for the 7,000 to 8,000 people staying on the square. A common sight on the square was women using buckets of water to wash their hair.

Kids brushing their teeth next to a puddle (left). An international NGO built urgently needed toilets and showers (right).

We learned through the interviews that organizational management is pretty lax here amongst the people living in tents. Men and women are mostly mixed, and sometimes total strangers are put in together. This poses a big problem, though some hidden risks, for single women, women-headed families or for those whose husbands or other male family members have had to go away to find work. There aren’t adequate bathroom facilities, which is a real problem for women regarding health and hygiene. Living conditions after the earthquakes are a real concern for anybody, but it is even worse for women, both in terms of inconvenience and of danger.

Women belong to a group that is at risk after natural disasters. Figures proof that women are more likely to become victims.

According to Nepal Earthquake 2015 Situation Report No.20 issued by UN on June 3rd, the total death among the population was 8702, with 3899 male, 4801 female and 2 dead bodies unidentified. UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund) has said that there are over two million women of childbearing age who have been affected to varying degrees by the earthquakes. About 126,000 pregnant women are in urgent need of medical care and about 40,000 women are potential victims of sexual violence. UNFPA has been distributing ‘dignity kits’ to women. These kits contain everyday items such as sanitary pads, flashlights and fresh clothes. Sub-clusters concerned with gender-based violence, coordinated by organizations such as the UNFPA and UN Women, also meet twice a week in the hope of quickly putting together feasible programmes which will improve the lives of afflicted women in the days following the earthquakes. Some iNGOs (international non-government organizations) are also beginning to pay more attention to women, and as they make plans and take into account the special needs of women-headed families, pregnant women, breast-feeding women, new mothers, etc.

I want to give special thanks to Mr Ashish, who accompanied me for these interviews. Ashish is pursuing graduate studies in Japan and studies there with my former classmate, Bai Shi, who connected us. Ashish had originally planned to return to Nepal for his wedding, but the ceremony was canceled due to the earthquake, and instead they celebrated with just a simple family meal. He will go back to Japan tomorrow. The day before his departure, he sacrificed the time he could have had with his new wife and his family, and instead volunteered to be my translator. It is because of him that I could successfully complete these interviews. He told me that he plans to run fund-raising activities amongst his colleagues and friends after he returns to Japan and contribute to the costs of rebuilding the Nepali school in which he once studied.