Nepal: Building shelters for women

Sangita Thami, 18, learns to build an improved temporary shelter in Chokati VDC, Sindhupalchok district. Sangita and her team have built 26 such shelters so far. She says she is very happy to have acquired vital skills. Photo credit:Catherine Mahony/Oxfam
Sangita Thami, 18, learns to build an improved temporary shelter in Chokati VDC, Sindhupalchok district. Sangita and her team have built 26 such shelters so far. She says she is very happy to have acquired vital skills. Photo credit:Catherine Mahony/Oxfam

Three months since the first earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, thousands of people still live outside in temporary shelters made of tarpaulins, bamboo, and metal sheets. Living in communal shelters has been challenging especially for women, as they face risks of sexual abuse and difficulty maintaining personal hygiene. 

The April earthquake and its aftershocks left 784,484 private houses fully or partially destroyed, this forced families to live outside. It is during these times that women’s needs for privacy tend to be higher than that of men as they live with compromised security, making them susceptible to trafficking and exploitation. The situation is worse for single women—either unmarried, widowed, or divorced. 

Oxfam and Care jointly carried out a rapid gender assessment in June in Gorkha and Dhading Districts, and a multi-sectoral needs assessment in Gorkha, Nuwakot, Sindhupalchowk, and Dhading. They found women fear getting abused by both men within their community and by strangers. Single women are either staying with neighbors or have asked their relatives to stay with them in tents. Women are under constant fear that their young daughters are under high risk of abuse and assault particularly during the night with compromised privacy and security.

“The earthquake has been a curse for a single mother like me,” says 34-year-old Ratte Maya Chhumi Tamang of Chhampi VDC, Lalitpur, “My husband died a few years back and I have three small kids. Life was hard already, and after the earthquake, we became homeless. I don’t have any male members in the family to help me; I managed to make a shelter for us using two used corrugated iron sheets.” 

No shelter, no privacy

Women in Nuwakot, where 89% of households reported damage to their family houses and 44% reported total devastation of their properties, also have similar stories to tell. “Our house was damaged by the earthquake and for the last three months, we have been living in this shelter,” says 25-year-old Radhika Majhi who lives in a structure made of bamboo mats, tarpaulins, and iron sheets. “We share a toilet with other villagers; for women like us, we face more difficulties around menstruation time.” In certain communities of Nepal, women have to live in seclusion during their menstruation period, and are not allowed to cook, touch male members or worship. Poornima Purkoti (22) of Chhampi, Lalitpur adds: “We have to go and live in a separate hut because the other women won't allow us to stay with them as they are worshipping. You can imagine how that is like?”

 Oxfam

Radhika Majhi, 25, uses a bucket Oxfam provided in Khadgabhanjyang VDC-4 in Nuwakot district. She is now living in a temporary shelter made from CGI sheets and bamboo mats with her husband, in-laws and her five-year-old son. They lost their house, cattle shed and latrine in the 25 April earthquake. Oxfam has provided her with farming tools and a hygiene kit. Photo credit: Roshani Kapali

Maintaining personal hygiene during such times, when the water supply is not enough and privacy is compromised, is a challenge. To raise awareness on the importance of menstrual hygiene, prevention of diseases, and sanitation issues, Oxfam has launched a radio program in Sindhupalchowk, bordering Nuwakot. To make sure women listen to information on maintaining hygiene, they are provided with radio sets. So far, 200 radio sets have been distributed. 

In the initial phase of earthquake response program, Oxfam provided gender-friendly hygiene kits (which contained among other things sanitary pads/clothes and chlorine tablets), emergency shelter kits like tarpaulins and ropes, built latrines with hand-washing stations, provided agricultural baskets that included seeds, seed vouchers, animal feed and also agricultural tools. As the monsoon set in, Oxfam shifted its focus on providing improved temporary shelters.

Improving shelters

Laxmi Tamang in Sindhupalchowk has now moved into the improved temporary shelter that Oxfam and its partner Gramin Mahila Sirjansheel Pariwar built for her and her two young sons. “My husband died two years ago when lightning struck. I didn’t expect anyone would build me a house,” she tells us. After living with her friends for some time in communal shelters, Laxmi has finally moved with her kids to a new house. Until mid July, Oxfam provided more than 32,000 emergency shelter kits and more than 1,500 improved shelter kits. 

Gender is at the heart of everything Oxfam does even during their emergency Humanitarian Responses. We have built women separate latrines with bathing facilities, formed teams of FCHVs (female community health volunteers) and social mobilizers to reach out to women and understand their needs, ensuring implementation of a demand-driven approach.  “In addition to building shelters, we have also been providing counseling services to help them come out of the trauma of earthquake,” says Bimba Bhattarai, Gender Partnership Coordinator at Oxfam.

Oxfam partnered with Women for Human Rights (WHR), an NGO, to build Women Centers in six earthquake-affected districts to provide counseling and referral services and need-based kits for women. “We are helping women who have lost their citizenship cards to get earthquake ID cards by working with the government,” says Lily Thapa, Executive Director of WHR.  

Women in reconstruction

Although women have faced challenges in the post earthquake period, some women have acquired new skills as reconstruction works begin in different districts. Eighteen-year-old Sangita Thami of Chokati VDC in Sindhupalchowk has already built 26 improved temporary shelters.

“On one hand I could do something productive for earthquake affected community people in my area. On the other, it’s a unique skill I have gathered as I can construct a house whenever there’s a need,” she says. In Nepal, usually men are involved in construction works. Oxfam has partnered with Gramin Mahila Sirjansheel Pariwar in Sindhupalchowk for improved temporary shelter construction. Around 20 women have been trained in shelter construction in Sindhupalchowk alone. 

While Sangita and her team were able to build 26 shelters for others, her own house needs reconstruction, as it’s partially damaged. She hopes to utilize her new-found skills to reconstruct her house.