Wheels Down in Nepal

Tonight, while many are asleep in their beds, Michael Kourabas and I will be on a plane heading east for Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. We make up UUSC’s two-person Program and Partner Support team, and much of what we do involves supporting and communicating with our grassroots partners, albeit primarily through digital means. So, this opportunity to meet staff from these amazing organizations face-to-face, a first for me, is both exciting and humbling.

The last time UUSC staff visited Nepal was in the immediate aftermath of back-to-back earthquakes in April and May of 2015. Natural disasters are non-discriminatory about where they hit and often exacerbate existing issues within a region or community. When the earthquakes hit, Nepal was already struggling with poor governance and political instability, which greatly impacted attempts to rebuild and strengthen resiliency.

The Sri Krishna school in Dhapakhel is reduced to rubble by the 2015 earthquakes.

The international humanitarian aid community rallied, pledging $4 billion as part of its response. Sadly, as is often the case, little of this money reached the parties coordinating on-the-ground response or vulnerable populations most needing relief, and a lack of local knowledge resulted in actions actually detrimental to response and recovery.

At UUSC, we use a different model for our support. Consistent with our rights-based approach to emergency response and recovery, we looked to local Nepali organizations to lead the way on identifying those most vulnerable – including women, girls, children, Dalits (members of Nepal’s lowest caste), and Indigenous Peoples – and solutions for protecting their rights, safeguarding equity, and building their capacity and resiliency.

Take the Tewa organization for instance. They provided pre- and post-natal care to pregnant women and sent women volunteers directly into earthquake-affected districts to support everything from income generation and gender sensitivity to clean-up and construction.

Natural disasters are destructive enough, but they also leave groups vulnerable to exploitation. In the case of Nepal post-earthquake, international investors and bilateral aid agencies were pushing for massive hydropower developments with significant negative repercussions for historically marginalized Indigenous Peoples living in the remote areas planned for development. With support from UUSC, Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP) stepped in, supporting the Indigenous Peoples at risk of involuntary displacement by helping them challenge hydropower projects, fight for compensation, and advocate for their rights.

Community members in Panchthar district discuss advocating for their rights during a seminar presented by UUSC partner Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples. (Photo courtesy of LAHURNIP)

UUSC’s sustained response to the Nepal earthquake included funding more than half a dozen grassroots organizations over multiple years. In any span of time, additional natural disasters can occur. This is, unfortunately, what happened in Nepal, which experienced severe flooding and landslides after a monsoon in August 2017. More than 300,000 families were impacted. Luckily, UUSC’s deep, existing relationships established during the earthquake response, allowed us to take action quickly and provide immediate funding to three partners, Tewa, Women for Human Rights – Single Women Group, and Empower Generation, helping them, in turn, coordinate humanitarian aid efforts and distribute items spanning from hygiene kits to tents and solar lamps.

Women for Human Rights distribute basic amenities, including utensils and bedding, to the most vulnerable and highly affected households of Saptari district. (Photo courtesy of Women for Human Rights.)

In the coming week, Michael and I will have the privilege of sharing space with these beautiful partners, hearing their experiences and how their response to the earthquake and flooding unfolded. We’ll also get to visit communities where our partners provided their support, like Rasuwa district, only a few hours’ drive north of Kathmandu. Rasuwa is one of the remote areas slated for hydropower development after the earthquake.

In a world where natural disasters are inevitably increasing, the voices and insights of our partners and those most impacted are essential to helping UUSC identify what our role is and will be in protecting human rights when communities face disasters, especially as recovery time between them continues shrinking.

We are energized and honored to represent the UUSC community in Nepal. We’ll certainly be reporting back – join us on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

The Nepal Earthquake: Two Years Later

On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, with a massive 7.3 magnitude aftershock devastated parts of Nepal. Nearly 9,000 people died, and more than 25,000 others were injured. 900,000 homes were destroyed. While the earthquake has faded from the news and even the memories of many outside of Nepal, UUSC continues to work with grassroots partners that are empowering survivors and protecting their rights as they rebuild their homes and lives. Today, on the two year anniversary of that devastating earthquake, we honor two of these organizations and share information about their work.

Women for Human Rights, single women group

Established in 1994, Women for Human Rights, single women group (WHR) is an NGO actively working for the rights of widows and single women in Nepal. Single women are deeply stigmatized because they are considered symbols of ill-omen and the cause of the death of their husbands. Patriarchal laws and policies that discriminate against them only further aggravate their suffering.

To combat this discrimination, WHR is dedicated to organizing widows across Nepal and at the regional and international levels. WHR aims for an equitable society where widows are respected and can live in dignity with sufficient social, cultural, economic, legal, and political rights. WHR has organized over 100,000 single women in 1,550 village development committees and municipalities in 73 districts across Nepal, mobilizing them as key agents of change in their respective communities.

UUSC has provided two grants to WHR as part of our Nepal Earthquake response. The earthquake left many widows fending for themselves and facing a multitude of problems. For example, in addition to the stigmatization they already faced, women who lacked documents were unable to claim their late husband’s property as their own or faced difficulties getting rebuilding grants because their marriage was unregistered.

Nepali woman holding book

Advocacy is a major strength of WHR’s work and they are directly involved in calling for changes to the country code in order to suspend laws that result in discriminatory policies against single women. WHR conducts trainings and facilitates workshops, organizing not only single women to advocate for the rights, but for all women to hold stakeholders accountable to guarantee rights for all Nepalis, regardless of their gender or marital status.

Empower Generation

Infographic with light bulb, Empower Generation logo, and map of NepalEmpower Generation (EG) began in 2012 with the launch of a women-led clean energy business in Nepal. As one of the poorest countries in the world, more than half of the country’s people live without access to reliable power. As EG explains on their website, “energy poverty affects women and children the most, exposing them to poisonous fumes from combustion of fuels such as firewood or kerosene. Millions of women and children die each year from respiratory problems associated with breathing smoke.”

To address this problem, EG aims to empower women already serving as household energy managers to become entrepreneurs. They develop market-based approaches to increase the adoption of clean energy technology in remote areas, improving health, saving carbon and money, and laying the foundation for greener economic development. EG’s distribution network now includes 13 women-led businesses, covering 11 districts and employments dozens of women. To date, EG’s network has distributed over 42,000 solar lights, saving impoverished Nepali families over $1.5 million in household energy expenses and displacing over 6,000 tons of CO2 by replacing kerosene and candles.

With a grant from the UUSC, EG has trained and supported 30 Dalit women in the earthquake affected Gorkha region to become solar sales agents and identify one woman in the group to manage these agents as a solar entrepreneur. The objective of the project was to provide long-lasting income generation and self-sufficiency to marginalized women affected by the earthquake. By providing solar power and light to their energy-poor communities, women earned income and respect. Trainings in sales, marketing, and business basics solidified their positions as community leaders while increasing their skills as communicators and financial managers. Learn more about EG’s work in their guest blog, Two Friends, One Mission: Access to Clean Technology in Gorkha.

Two friends, one mission: Access to Clean Technology in Gorkha

Originally posted on Empower Generation’s blog on February 1, 2017. Follow them at @EmpowerGrid to stay up to date on all their amazing work!

Two women smiling

“It still gives me shivers when I think of the earthquake we had on April 25, 2015,” says solar co-CEO Gita Pariyar. “Nepal faced a huge devastation, people lost their lives and those who survived were left with no shelter and darkness at night. We faced not only physical damages but were also shaken psychologically.”

Gorkha District, the epicenter of the earthquake, was hardest hit. It is one of the remotest districts in Nepal, and it is difficult for people there to access healthcare, education, and electricity. This is why Gorkha is one of the most neglected districts in terms of development and why people there face many hardships.

Empower Generation, in partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) wanted to provide support to the district and Dalit women in the community. Dalits are the “untouchables” caste, the lowest designation in the caste system, and face enormous discrimination in society. Initially, Empower Generation and UUSC were planning to select one entrepreneur and several sales agents, as part of our program. However, after meeting Danu Ale, age 27, and Gita Pariyar, age 37, we decided to recruit both of them as co-CEOs of one business. Danu and Gita have a long track record of working together as community outreach and development volunteers, having introduced improved cookstoves to their communities and provided health and sanitation trainings.

Neither of them had ever thought about starting their own business, but with Empower Generation and UUSC’s support they started their business Ashmita and Laxmi Saurya Urjah and Traders, named after their daughters Ashmita and Laxmi. With their new business, they are not only becoming financially independent but are also providing job opportunities to their ten sales agents.


Gita, born a Dalit, remembers how people used to cleanse everything that was touched by her and other Dalits when she was a child. Though people today are more aware and less prejudice about Dalits, there are still many who do not accept them. From a young age, Gita worked hard to change people’s perceptions of Dalits. Today, she works for a community development program, promoted by Empower Dalit Women of Nepal (EDWON). EDWON’s mission is to enable rural Dalit women, repressed by caste and gender, to claim their rights and live in dignity.

Nepalese woman in a sari.
Gita in her shop.

Gita’s business partner Danu is part of an indigenous caste called Magar. She does not face the same discrimination as Gita, but her caste does not have a high standard of living in Gorkha. Though Danu and Gita are from different castes, like all people, they share common experiences. They both were married at 17 years old and both have a 7th grade education.

Nepalese woman with two children at her side.
Danu with her children

In terms of running their business, Danu and Gita’s skills and strengths complement each other. Danu is skilled with her hands, but when it comes to speaking in front of large audiences she lacks confidence. Gita has strong leadership skills and is confident speaking with people. Both Danu and Gita share a focus on developing the skills of the people in their communities.

Neither of them had ever thought about starting their own business, but with Empower Generation and UUSC’s support they started their business Ashmita and Laxmi Saurya Urjah and Traders, named after their daughters Ashmita and Laxmi. With their new business, they are not only becoming financially independent but are also providing job opportunities to their ten sales agents, who were unable to complete their schooling and belong to either the Dalit or indigenous castes.

Since the 2015 earthquake, many people continue to live in Gorkha without electricity. Solar products distributed by Danu and Gita’s business are making life easier. Customers can extend their working days into the evenings, earning more income and improving their children’s study times and household safety. For example, farmers can work in their fields and check on their livestock in the evenings; children can study for longer hours; and women can see better when cooking at night, decreasing kitchen accidents. Danu and Gita’s business has helped entire communities come out of darkness. They want to light every village in Gorkha. But due to Gorkha’s rugged geographical terrain, it is difficult for one enterprise to cover all the villages in the district. There is no reliable public transport to visit remote areas, so it is essential that more solar enterprises are launched.

One Year Later: Empowering Nepali Communities to Rebuild

One year ago, on April 25, a major earthquake devastated parts of Nepal, killing thousands of people, injuring tens of thousands, and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. Over the past year, many rebuilding efforts have been hindered by poor governance and political instability. While the earthquake has faded from the news and from the memories of many outside of Nepal, UUSC has been continuously dedicated to empowering vulnerable people and protecting their rights as they rebuild their homes and lives. 

The impact of the earthquake

By the numbers:

  • 7.8 magnitude earthquake, with a massive 7.3 magnitude aftershock
  • Nearly 9,000 people killed, and more than 25,000 people injured
  • 900,000 homes destroyed
  • 6.75 million Nepalis affected
  • Over $400,000 raised by UUSC and the Unitarian Universalist Association to support relief efforts

The aftermath of this earthquake — now, even a year later — is about more than numbers; it’s about lives. It’s about people. With entire villages flattened, survivors were left without homes, without livelihoods, without the essentials.

Sadhana Shrestha, the executive director of Tewa – a women’s fund in Nepal and UUSC’s partner in delivering aid to displaced women in remote villages – wrote to us just after the major aftershock. “Half an hour away from the village, we felt the tremor, and suddenly we saw dusts of houses collapsing, sending villagers out into the road. . . . [The women] had nothing, and the houses that were cracked in the earlier quake had fallen due to the one just a half hour before. Our hearts were in our mouths, but seeing the faces of resilient women smiling in spite of all odds, saying they would buy tin sheets using the money we gave so they could have roofs over their heads — we were amazed!”

In natural disasters, resilience without resources is unsustainable. UUSC has been at work in Nepal since the day after the earthquake, engaging with on-the-ground partners to deliver resources and support to the people who need it most.

UUSC’s approach

In responding to the earthquake, UUSC’s plan reflected its overall approach to disasters: we asked who’s most likely to be overlooked or ignored, who’s doing the most innovative work to empower these marginalized people, and how can we help? In Nepal, this meant focusing on women, girls, children, Dalits, and indigenous peoples. UUSC’s approach also means supporting community leaders as they develop long-term, sustainable solutions to the challenges of rebuilding.

UUSC’s goals in supporting the relief and rebuilding processes include:

  • Protecting the rights of women and girls and empowering female leaders
    • Ensuring women’s immediate access to disaster relief and health services
    • Supporting the livelihoods of women, especially single women and Dalits
  • Safeguarding educational opportunities for marginalized children
  • Building local capacity for individual trauma recovery and community resiliency
  • Defending indigenous rights threated by accelerated development projects


The only way to effectively achieve these goals is to work with partners on the ground. It is the survivors who know the situation — who live the situation — and who are best equipped to guide the direction of rebuilding efforts. UUSC continues to work with several partners to achieve common goals through the following efforts:

  • Tewa: Provide pre- and postnatal care, food, clothing, and shelter to pregnant women, women in labor, and nursing mothers who were displaced; send volunteers to earthquake-affected districts to work with mothers’ groups, community groups, children, and teachers on issues related to human rights, income generation, and gender sensitivity; advocate on behalf of earthquake survivors.
  • Rural Health and Education Service Trust (RHEST): Distribute information on nutrition and reproductive health to adolescent girls; train community health workers about reproductive health.
  • Women for Human Rights Single Women Group (WHR): Develop and implement district-level responses to gender-based violence; collect data for policy advocacy; and establish a referral and safety net for survivors of gender-based violence.
  • Empower Generation: Distribute much-needed solar lights and mobile charging to displaced people; and create income-generating opportunities for Dalit women to become entrepreneurs and solar power sales agents.
  • Chetana: Set up temporary classrooms and provide midday meals for displaced students in areas with large populations of marginalized people; train teachers, other school officials, health workers, and others in trauma resiliency skills; help students overcome stress and trauma.
  • Trauma Resource Institute (TRI): Build long-term capacity for trauma recovery and resiliency in diverse communities by training frontline service providers and community leaders (including Chetana) to deliver trauma resiliency skills to earthquake survivors.
  • Lawyer’s Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP): Engage indigenous people affected by accelerated investment in hydropower following the earthquake to understand and advocate for their rights.

(Solar) Spotlight: Empower Generation

In their own words, “Empower Generation provides women in Nepal with technical training and support to establish and grow clean energy businesses. The clean energy products are affordable, durable, and designed to deliver a life-changing opportunity to energy-poor communities. We envision a world where women lead the clean energy revolution, reducing deforestation and the use of fossil fuels.” Touching on so many areas of UUSC’s work, they were a natural partner in the wake of the earthquake. And they still are today.

For its project with UUSC, Empower Generation focused on Dalit women, who are historically part of the lowest caste in Nepal. Even though Nepali laws have changed to promote equality among the castes, Dalits still face enormous social stigma and ensuing challenges. Empower Generation reports that 90% of Dalit women in Nepal live in poverty, and 80% are illiterate. 

The Dalit Women-Led Solar Distribution Enterprise Project was implemented in the Gorkha district of Nepal and began with a pre-enterprise sales and marketing training for 30 participants. These women learned the benefits of solar lighting, and how to sell them to people in their communities. Danu Ale and Gita Pariyar, two sales agents who showed promising leadership and sales skills, then attended an additional business training in Kathmandu to learn everything they needed to start their own businesses, including market assessments and work plans. They also received start-up inventory loans and began the process of registering their businesses.

Pariyar reflected on the experience and talked about what the future holds: “This training is beyond my expectation. I believe that it will change my approach to life and help me lead a respectful life as a woman entrepreneur.” The UUSC – Empower Generation partnership will continue to support Ale and Pariyar as they launch their businesses, grow their village-level sales force, and, as Empower Generation puts it, “power their communities with clean, safe, affordable energy.”

2015 Highlights

Thanks to the support of advocates for justice like you, UUSC has relentlessly pursued justice and the advancement of a host of human rights over the past year. UUSC partners with locally led grassroots organizations that have deep connections to individuals and communities facing vast violations of their rights due to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, refugee status, and other aspects of who they are. Together, UUSC and these partners work to end entrenched systemic inequality and social, political, and economic exclusion, often in the midst of rapidly evolving humanitarian crises.

Check out our 2015 highlights below and please make a gift to ensure this work continues in 2016! You can also click here to download a PDF of 2015 annual report.

Promoting economic justice

  • Supported national day of action in solidarity with Darden restaurant workers by rallying local ministers and UU advocacy networks in California and Maryland
  • Filed a shareholder resolution at Darden that would require greater transparency and accountability concerning Darden’s political spending at local, state, and federal levels
  • Benefitted 5,000 people directly and 15,000 people indirectly, all in the informal economy, through leadership development, capacity building, and awareness raising about the rights of people with disabilities
  • Supported the creation and distribution of a comic book to educate youth and adults about food chain workers
  • Supported training for 500 restaurant workers, an expanded network of 200 responsible restaurant employers, and three new training facilities for U.S. restaurant workers
  • Initiated series of trainings that will each empower 36 workers to advocate for the Good Food Purchasing Policy, which benefits low-income students and senior citizens
  • Petitioned the Darden restaurant group, pressuring them to adopt the Good Food Purchasing Policy principles in their food procurement

Protecting rights at risk

  • Responding to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe
  • Partnered with the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI) to train nearly 900 people in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan in teaching and leading more than 5,000 others in trauma resiliency skills
  • Trained agrarian reform communities in the Philippines on organic farming and livestock raising
  • Completed construction of a sixth eco-village in Haiti as well as the first phase of a school for children of the eco-villages
  • Continued supporting the Urban Food Gardens project in Haiti, which trained another 140 families to build food gardens
  • Celebrated the passage of the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act into law and gathered more than 800 supporter signatures for a thank-you to legislators
  • With more than 4,500 UUSC supporters, petitioned the Obama administration to release asylum-seeking children and their mothers from immigration detention and worked with partners to support these families
  • Provided assessment and services to 400 people with disabilities affected by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and ensured that disabled citizens had equitable access to relief materials
  • Provided temporary classrooms and supplies to enable 2,300 students to return to school following the Nepal earthquake
  • Mobilized community-based volunteers in Nepal to assist earthquake-affected communities, reaching 15 districts, 112 communities, and 23,271 households
  • In partnership with TRI, trained 92 frontline service providers in Nepal with the capacity to assist over 13,000 survivors with psychosocial support
  • Supported 200 farmers in Northern Shan state in Myanmar, also known as Burma, through a credit union project that reached 5,000 community member beneficiaries
  • Provided Rohingya refugee communities in Thailand with shelter, access to education, and other emergency support
  • Together with TRI in Turkey, trained nongovernmental organization workers in trauma resiliency skills to assist Syrian refugees, with an expected 800 beneficiaries
  • Supported a local foundation and community shelter in Burundi that provided assistance to women and children during the violence that erupted before the June elections
  • Working in tandem with the UU College of Social Justice, organized 17 volunteers who spent up to 1,880 hours assisting asylum-seeking families with a partner in Texas

Defending the human right to water

  • Participated in hearings on the human right to water held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • Facilitated a fact-finding visit to Detroit, Mich., by the U.N. special rapporteurs on the human rights to water and housing, with visits to families affected by water shutoffs
  • Supported a legal case in which the Mexican court ruled the city and country are required to fully implement the human right to water
  • Advocated for water affordability in Boston, Mass., where Mayor Marty Walsh announced a 30% discount on water rates for low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities
  • Participated in first-ever consultation on human rights and the environment held by the U.S. government and attended by several federal agencies
  • Organized more than 1,400 UUSC supporters to contact President Obama and urge him to veto approval of the Keystone XL pipeline

Responding to climate change

  • Collaborated with seven other organizations to form Commit2Respond, a coalition of people of faith and conscience taking action for climate justice
  • Raised more than $17,000 during Climate Justice Sunday to help communities in California and Kenya protect their human right to water
  • Took part in Commit2Respond’s Climate Justice Month, which succeeded in getting 3,200 individuals and more than 170 organizations and faith communities to join Commit2Respond

Facilitating transformative learning through the UU College of Social Justice

  • Conducted a total of 15 journeys — grounded in worship, study, and reflection — for congregations and individuals to Haiti, India, Mexico, and U.S. destinations, with 166 participants
  • Engaged 90 youth participants in Activate justice trainings for high school age students, including a program focused on climate justice
  • Adapted service-learning programs for youth groups in New York and at the U.S.-Mexico border
  • Placed 12 college-age young adults with justice organizations through an internship program, including four in India

Light and Leadership

Women in Nepal

As UUSC continues its work in post-earthquake Nepal, it’s paying special attention to the struggles of women who are too often discriminated against: single widows and Dalit women. UUSC has teamed up with two new partner organizations to strengthen women’s leadership, advocate for women’s rights, and encourage women’s entrepreneurship in the midst of the recovery.

Single widows standing up against violence

The Single Women Group of Women for Human Rights (WHR) is a Nepali nongovernmental organization actively working for the rights of single widows. Dedicated to building a vibrant network of widows, WHR aims for an equitable society where widows are respected and can live in dignity with sufficient access to their social, cultural, economical, legal, and political rights.

WHR has succeeded in mobilizing widows as key agents of change in their respective communities — and its organizing reach is extensive:

  • Over 100,000 single women
  • 2,550 village development committees
  • 73 districts of Nepal

Advocacy is one of WHR’s major strengths, and the organization works to change the discriminatory laws and policies against single women. WHR is also working on disaster act advocacy, aimed at ensuring compensation for and inclusion of women-headed households.

UUSC is specifically partnering with WHR to decrease violence against women and support survivors. WHR has strong experience in this issue and has been working directly with single women leaders in the displacement camps around Kathmandu to educate women about sexual exploitation and violence. UUSC is funding a project in the Saptarai District of Nepal, an area witnessing high prevalence of violence against women and girls. With a well-established network in the area — 800 single women there are affiliated with group — WHR’s plans include district-level strategy, awareness raising, documentation of cases, mapping of safe facilities and functionality, and educational workshops.

Women’s power plus solar power

Empower Generation (EG), UUSC’s other new partner in Nepal, is advancing women’s rights, economic opportunity, and environmental stewardship all at once. EG supports support women-led businesses distributing clean energy solutions to their communities. After the earthquake, EG began a targeted relief effort called Project Sol that meets myriad needs.

Project Sol distributes much-needed solar light and mobile charging products to people who have been displaced. At the same time, it creates income-generating opportunities for women living in the affected areas by training women in sales and marketing and by providing starter kits for solar power enterprises. Through Project Sol, EG working with UUSC to support women in the Gorkha district, in which 36,578 households were heavily damaged or destroyed in the earthquake.

In an effort to create a more resilient Gorkha, EG provides technical training, skills, and resources in collaboration with an organization called Empower Dalit Women of Nepal (known as ADWAN). Together the two groups empower Dalit women to develop solar enterprises and become entrepreneurs in this area. Empower Generation is a expert leader in the field, and Anya Cherneff, EG’s executive director, recently won a C3E Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Award in the International category.