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.