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

Partners

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.

 

Bright Futures in Resilient Nepal

It’s been four months since a calamitous earthquake devastated parts of Nepal. The earthquake affected one in three Nepalis, and one in ten lost their homes. But after a week visiting our partners on the ground, I was inspired to see Nepali people moving forward from tremendous damage and loss toward brighter futures.

Vital aid for women and children

Tewa (Philanthropy for Equitable Justice and Peace), one of UUSC’s first partners in Nepal, has been working through a large entrusted network of community-led organizations to support women and children in the wake of the earthquake. Its Hamro Tewa Gaon-gharma program (which translates to “barefoot shadow volunteers”) enlisted volunteers in providing critical assistance, such as child care, to local women so that they could begin clearing out their homes and rebuilding their lives. The reach of Tewa’s relief efforts is significant:

  • 15 districts
  • 112 communities
  • 23,271 households

Beyond ensuring equitable relief, Tewa has also been campaigning to ensure women’s equal representation and protect women’s rights in the Nepali constitutional reform debates.

Chetana, another UUSC on-the-ground partner, has been setting up transitional classrooms and providing school supplies in affected areas. Its reach: an estimated 2,300 students, including a significant number of Dalit children, who are often discriminated against. Chetana’s safe zones have provided children a chance to resume normal daily interaction with their peers and given teachers an opportunity to provide the students with counseling and support.

Healing from trauma

One thing immediately clear in the aftermath of the earthquake was the vast need for mental health resources, especially in rural and remote districts most affected by the disaster. With a rich history of providing such support, UUSC partnered with the Trauma Resources Institute (TRI) once again to provide community-based trauma resiliency skills.

With the Nepali people reeling from the trauma of multiple earthquakes and persistent aftershocks, rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and related mental health challenges spiked. Though reliable survey data does not yet exist, experts have used World Health Organization estimates to predict that roughly 5–10 % of the country’s population will suffer a mental disorder as a result of the earthquakes — that’s 1.5–3 million new cases. An untold number of other Nepalis are struggling to cope with feelings of powerlessness, despair, and self-blame after the disaster. Support from the United Nations and the Nepal government meets only a fraction of the need.

Within days of the earthquake, UUSC and TRI started planning a training of trainers on the Community Resiliency Model (CRM), which uses accessible and culturally adaptable body-based skills to treat the effects of trauma. In August, TRI worked with UUSC to train 92 service providers from diverse sectors working with earthquake survivors throughout the country. Over the next 12 months, the CRM skills will be used to provide 13,000 people, including children, with the support they need to heal from trauma. Chetana sent 24 teachers from six districts to the training, and they will use these skills to provide 1,000 students with psychosocial support.

Our training participants arrived overworked, ridden with anxiety, and traumatized by the extreme suffering they’ve witnessed. After a few days, their personal transformation was stark — smiles emerged and spirits lifted. By the end of the week, the participants were engaged in nightly dancing and a laughter that was infectious to all of our trainers, who also joined in.

Resilient and hopeful

After visiting affected communities, talking with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), hearing the stories of women in displacement camps, and participating in our training with TRI, I had a major epiphany: despite the tremendous human casualties and the ruinous state of much of the country, the Nepali people remain resilient and hopeful.

While there continues to be much uncertainty and heartache, there were also signs of rebuilding, people working together, community groups meeting, and local NGOs leading the charge at every corner. The Nepali people never gave up hope. Their faith in a better future — and their willingness to struggle toward it — shows that empowerment and healing can still be found in the face of terrible loss. The future of Nepal is clear — it’s a future emboldened by optimism and opportunity.

Trauma Resiliency Training in Nepal

A photo from a training on trauma resiliency skills that we partnered with the Trauma Resource Institute to offer to the teachers of Chetana Nepal and other community organizations as they recover from the devastating earthquake. The training had 45 participants, who will in turn be able to return to their communities and teach the skills to others, including schoolchildren! Chetana participants did a community-based field training with the kids at the Sri Krishna School in Dhapakhel.