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Nepal's Missing Gender Lens

Nepal was rocked by yet another major earthquake of 7.3 magnitude on May 12, causing further damage to life and property. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake of April 25 had already left much of Nepal completely devastated. Government figures as of last week show that 284,455 houses have now been confirmed destroyed and another 234,102 damaged. The numbers of reported casualties also increased to 7,675 deaths and 16,392 injured.

As recovery and restoration efforts continue, those numbers will only go up, but they do not paint a full picture of the damage on the ground. Viewing the destruction through a lens of gender reveals an entirely new layer of devastation. According to UN estimates, on any given day in Nepal, an estimated 3.2 million women need protection or aid from international organizations. Of these, 525,000 are women of reproductive age—with approximately 126,000 pregnant women and 21,000 in need obstetric care in the coming three months. Approximately 40,000 women are at immediate risk of gender-based violence.

Even before the earthquake, this situation could have been classified as a crisis and the large-scale physical damage and social disruption caused by the disaster have exposed these affected communities to a series of adverse conditions that only leave them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Given the predominant patriarchal structure of Nepali society, even in non-disaster situations women and girls trail at the bottom of the household and community priority lists when it comes to accessing basic necessities like food, health care, education and information. 

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, all assistance focused – as it should have – on emergency relief. However, several weeks into the disaster now, as we review the collective experiences of NGOs, development partners, local administrations, and individuals, the unfolding narrative exposes some serious gaps in post-disaster rescue and relief work. It highlights the extreme gender-based vulnerability and marginalization and reveals the inequitable distribution of rescue, relief, and post-disaster rehabilitation resources.

Two weeks into the response to the earthquake, as relief efforts begin to scale up and focus on the longer term, the absence of a coherent strategy from the government to ensure equitable distribution of resources amongst the affected population, by safeguarding the specific vulnerabilities related to gender, age, caste and class is creating obvious social tension in the affected communities. This tension poses a serious threat to social stability.

The 2014 edition of the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index indicates Nepal has high levels of discrimination against women in its social institutions. This pre-existing gender bias is reflected in the post-disaster relief prioritization, where little or no attention is being paid to women’s specific needs for protection and health resources. Young women and girls in temporary shelter need facilities and support to address their essential requirements related to menstruation and lactation—and pregnant women require adequate nourishment to sustain themselves and their children. Unfortunately, except for certain targeted interventions undertaken by development partners, there is no planned intervention to address these and other gender-specific needs in relief operations following the earthquake.

The risks faced by marginalized groups in the wake of the earthquake go beyond allocation of resources. Viewed through the lens of gender, we can also see how and why gender and labor concerns left some of the most devastated districts, like Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Dhading, and Gorkah, to suffer disproportionately the immediate aftermath of the quake itself. These districts are primary sources of labor migration—the majority of working-age males in these districts are out of the country in search of jobs or working, and the majority of households are either headed by women or include only the elderly and the very young.

The resulting absence of a sizeable proportion of the male population in these districts has had serious implications for post-disaster rescue and relief work. Households made up of women or the elderly were less equipped to help rescue other family members who were injured or buried when their houses collapsed. There are heart-wrenching accounts from the field, such as the case of a mother who sat for three days outside her collapsed house, listening to the dwindling cries of her young son buried in the rubble, unable to pull him out as he slowly died.

Even days after the disaster, as rescue and relief trickled in, the elderly, single women, and young mothers with no adult male family members have had the least access to relief material. The elderly who are injured and traumatized are not able to reach the accessible points or areas where relief is being distributed. The same is true for pregnant women and women with babies and young children to take care of. In many situations women are the sole caregivers for the very young and the elderly survivors in the family and are unable to leave them to look for relief traversing long distances through largely inaccessible terrain. The elderly are often unable to build temporary shelters, even when supplies are provided, and they consequently continue to be exposed to hazards like post-earthquake landslides, rains, and disease. 

The inequitable distribution of rescue and relief resources has been further exacerbated by the absence of effective disaster management systems and the collapse of local governance bodies in most affected districts. First-hand accounts of the quake’s immediate aftermath from local organizations indicate that, in districts like Sindhupalchowk, the complete absence of any state presence made it impossible to mount rescue and relief operations in villages lacking infrastructure and access roads and inhabited by the poorest citizens. The fact that relief is not being distributed equally increases the vulnerability to abuse of women, children, and the elderly.

Single women also remain at particularly high risk of abuse and exploitation following the disaster. One of our partners reported a case of attempted sexual abuse of a female survivor by a radiologist during a post-trauma examination in a health camp According to Women for Human Rights, an organization working with single women, in just four of the affected districts – Dhading, Kavre, Nuwakot and Gorkha – some 21,000 single women have lost their homes and property, and in some cases their children and other family members. The exodus of people to safer areas is putting women and girls at greater risk. One NGO reported that a woman was raped by a bus conductor as she was attempting to leave for a safer district.

An engendered approach to post-disaster relief and rehabilitation needs to be fully cognizant of and responsive to the specific needs that women and the most marginalized face: food, nutrition, shelter, and protection for women and girls. Without their survival and security needs met, pregnant women, lactating mothers, single women, and adolescents will be exposed to additional violence and upheaval. The incidence of increased sexual violence and abuse against women in humanitarian crises has been globally reported and the same may become more acute in the wake of a natural disaster as well—especially in context of Nepal, where state machinery became dysfunctional and /or non-existent in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. We must ensure that our relief and rehabilitation interventions address the needs of those at most risk with a clear focus and adequate resources. 


Nandita Baruah is the deputy country representative to Nepal for The Asia Foundation. She has more than 20 years of experience working in the fields of human rights, migration, human trafficking, and gender.