Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners (Part III)

Movement-building through Eye-to-Eye Partnership

Our site visits to communities benefitting from Tewa and LAHURNIP’s work kept Michael and I busy for most of our Nepal trip. We were honored to host a convening with all of the partners we’ve been supporting since 2015 before leaving the country.

To sit and listen to their stories, from women who gained livelihood skills (Tewa, Empower Generation, and Dalit Mahila Ekata Kendra) and families who learned to make healthier food choices (RHEST), to groups now able to effectively advocate for their rights (LAHURNIP, Women for Human Rights, single women group), was truly awesome. Partners didn’t hesitate to use time together to discuss synergies between their projects and share ways to better support and collaborate with each other in the future.

Sita Adhikari, co-founder and country director of Empower Generation, presents on their work empowering women through clean energy entrepreneurship and distribution.

These partner meetings and site visits allow for honest, heartfelt conversation that lays the foundation for authentic relationships and meaningful support among organizations. This is especially important as UUSC winds down our recovery work in Nepal. There’s so much to be learned from simply listening – we come to better understand what affected communities need for disaster recovery. We also learn what strengths and relationships can and already exist among groups on-the-ground, and whether they can be further cultivated to empower people in their recovery and everyday lives. Knowing these relationships are in place is crucial to ensuring long-term community resilience.

Michael and I returned home with a profound sense of gratitude for incredible partners who recognize their own humanity and help others to do the same, realizing the impact they can have in the world.

Their work brings to mind the Albert Einstein quote, “Everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Whether it’s a leadership training, providing someone with resources when they are in need, or making space for people to gather face-to-face and share stories and strategies, everything our partners in Nepal are doing matters. In fact, the beauty of their full impact won’t likely be fully realized for years to come.

 

Catch up on parts one and two of this series and don’t forget to follow UUSC on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs.

Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners (Part II)

Protecting and Advancing Indigenous Rights in the Face of Industrial Development

On our recent trip to Nepal, my colleague, Michael, and I also met with representatives of several indigenous communities supported by UUSC’s partner the Lawyer’s Association for Human Rights of Nepali Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP). After a very bumpy, six-hour ride we found ourselves seated among a group of indigenous community leaders in Dhunche, a remote village in Nepal’s Rasuwa district.

Meeting with LAHURNIP and community members in Dhunche village, Rasuwa district. Everyone is dressed in coats because indoor heating is rare in Nepal.

Many houses in Dhunche were lost to the earthquakes, but it quickly became clear to us that perhaps even greater damage may come from several development projects rapidly unfolding throughout the region. The national government and foreign investors are moving forward on development projects, displacing entire communities, destroying forests, and exacerbating issues of water scarcity and isolation. An Indigenous People’s Human Rights Defender (IPHRD) explained to us that landslides, which at first glance appear to be earthquake damage, are actually the result of road construction and blasting related to nearby hydropower and highway projects planned to connect Kathmandu to the China-Nepal border.

“What is this project giving us in exchange for using our resources and polluting our environment? All of these development projects are not providing facilities or other benefits, and any jobs that could go to local people are being offered to people living outside of here, including from Kathmandu.”

As expressed by one IPHRD, very few public announcements were made about the hydropower project, and those that were made didn’t include details about funding sources or operational plans. Community members have met with project officials to learn more and formally request natural resource protection and job opportunities for local people be included in the planning. As a result, some jobs have been given to local people; however, the community still awaits a response or any action on natural resource protection. One community member asked, “What is this project giving us in exchange for using our resources and polluting our environment? All of these development projects are not providing facilities or other benefits, and any jobs that could go to local people are being offered to people living outside of here, including from Kathmandu.”

Many bravely called out the project developers and made demands, but it was clear to them that they needed clarity on their own rights and any benefits to which they may be entitled. As a pioneer organization of human rights lawyers, LAHURNIP is well-poised to inform and train indigenous communities on how to assert their rights and collectively engage to make their demands.

One approach has been the formation of a 23-member “struggle committee.” This committee provided a platform for the communities to make joint demands of developers. Equipped with more information, some community members were able to negotiate increased compensation to cover home and property loss, as well as better manage the compensation they received.

Karsang, another IPHRD we met, explained his role in organizing a protest for job opportunities at one of the hydropower projects, Upper Trishuli-1. This effort resulted in some jobs being awarded to local indigenous people. The communities are now working to create a stronger dialogue with investors and aim to include profit and resource-sharing in development plans.

Empowered by LAHURNIP’s training and successful negotiations, several men have been pursuing local leadership positions, strikingly similar to the pursuits of the women of Srijanshil Mahila.

Road closure and tractors tearing out trees and other plants as part of new road construction for Trishuli-1 hydropower project.

Read the final installment of the three-part series on our trip to Nepal, and catch up on part one here! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs.

Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners

“I can’t explain it in words.” This was a Srijanshil Mahila (Creative Woman) member’s first response when Michael Kourabas, UUSC associate director for program and partner support, and I asked about her experience during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. Although two and a half years have passed, it was evident from conversations we had with partners and community members that the effects are still with them today.

Throughout our week-long visit, we were granted many opportunities to listen and learn not only about the earthquakes’ destruction and injustices exposed but also the ways in which individuals, families, and entire communities tapped into their resilience and power to support one another.

Srijanshil Mahila member describes the value of Tewa livelihood trainings at their meeting space in Dharmasthali village.

Recovery and Resilience: The women of Srijanshil Mahila

Srijanshil Mahila is based in the Dharmasthali village of Kathmandu and made up of women from several districts. Although these women were working to help themselves and their communities as soon as the earthquake hit, the group officially came together about a year ago with support from UUSC’s partner, Tewa.

Shelter, waste disposal, and water scarcity are a few of the immediate issues that arose in earthquakes’ aftermath. Aftershocks and rumors of theft made people uneasy about returning to their homes, so families pitched tents and tarps outside or, when this was not an option, stayed together under the open sky. In Dharmasthali, forty women worked together, traveling to a nearby development to retrieve water for others. In an effort to create more sanitary conditions, some of the women also helped dig holes to dispose of human waste. Several women worked together with Tewa to improve this situation.

Like UUSC, Tewa strives to follow the lead of the communities it supports. In this spirit, they listened to and delivered on women’s requests for trainings relating to livelihood skills and sustainable income sources, such as sewing and soap-making, as well as leadership development, and sexual and reproductive health advocacy.

Srijanshil Mahila members were adamant that other women from the community be invited to participate in trainings, and many were able to combine what they gained from skill-building and leadership trainings to start their own businesses. Several women now run a tailoring shop, and another member runs a beauty parlor.

Fabrics and tailored clothing at sewing/tailoring shop

 

32-year-old Gauri Basnet (left) and 29 year-old Kabita Khatri learned sewing through Tewa and now run this tailoring shop

When UUSC assesses impact, we’re curious to learn about any unanticipated benefits resulting from our partner’s work. For example, have community members taken on any unexpected leadership roles? Exploring the unexpected benefits is often how we come to understand the compounding effects of our partnership. It illustrates how our support can expand over time.

“This was so fruitful for me,” explained a preschool teacher about her participation in Tewa’s leadership training. “I used to make the rules myself for my classes, but now we are working together to do this. There is a relationship between me and the staff that was not there before. I’m learning from them.”

“Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

With newfound supportive relationships and a greater sense of personal agency, some women have felt empowered to seek leadership enhancement trainings from Tewa, positioning themselves to run for office. One Srijanshil Mahila member remarked, “Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

Men feel the positive effects of these changes as well. Although initially some men were critical of the time and energy women devoted to the Tewa trainings and each other, several have begun asking how they can also receive trainings.

Read parts two and three of the series on our trip to Nepal, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs and news from UUSC.

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.

An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week, we are highlighting ways to get involved in the #May1Strike, the Nepal Earthquake anniversary, and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse.

 Immigration rights demonstrators rally in downtown Los Angeles 11 years ago.

How to Join the ‘Day Without Immigrants’ on May Day, Ariana Rosas Cardenas, The Nation, April 28, 2017 

 “When workers, immigrants, women, Muslims, black and brown, indigenous, queer and trans communities face exploitation, criminalization, incarceration, deportation, violence and harassment, we strike.”

This year’s May Day, an annual worker’s day strike held on International Worker’s Day, is expected to have the biggest turnout in over 10 years. Not only are immigrants and workers participating, but Native Americans, refugees, LGBTQ, and people of color are all joining to protest the Trump administration’s threats and attacks on minority communities.

Hundreds and thousands will be missing work, school, and shopping to show the impacts these combined communities and movements can have and to defy the hate and criminalization they are facing. This article highlights different events that are happening all across the United States.

Together with the Unitarian Universalist Association, UUSC has launched a joint campaign, Love Resists, to resist hate and create more welcoming communities. We’ve posted some more ways you can participate in May 1 events here!

Nepal’s earthquake disaster: Two years and $4.1bn later, Narayan Adhikari, Al Jazeera, April 24, 2017

It has been two years since the Nepal Earthquake, and only 5% of the houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. The Nepal Earthquake destroyed close to 824,000 homes, which means over 800,000 families are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. Despite over $4 billion being donated and pledged for reconstruction efforts, only 12% of these funds have been used. A lack of government coordination and understanding, low participation among local groups, and overall lack of transparency have all contributed to slow recovery.

The article emphasizes that “the international community can bring about more lasting change by directing their support towards citizens and local organisations committed to solving the root problems of corruption and lack of information.”

UUSC is proud to be part of this international community that brings lasting change. We work with grassroots partners that are empowering survivors and protecting their rights as they rebuild their homes and lives. Read more about our work with two of these organizations!

It Has Been Four Years Since the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse—How Much Has Changed?, Michelle Chen, The Nation, April 24, 2017

Four years ago, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers and fueling an outrage for labor reform needs in the garment industry. Despite this outrage, labor reforms have been slow to make. After hundreds went on strike at one of the manufacturing centers in Ashulia, labor activists and factory workers have been fired and accused of various acts by the same government that promised reforms and protections four years ago.

Wage theft and proper working conditions are some of the basic demands workers are asking for. Activists and workers that speak out are being punished, and at the end of the day, workers feel that large companies are only looking to make a profit. These workers currently only making $67 a month, and the raise they were asking for is still far below a livable wage.

International pressure has allowed for some regulations and improved working conditions, but without continued public pressure, workers are losing their right to organize – a detrimental effect on equal rights and protections. Without the ability to organize, there is also no structure to hold owners and bosses accountable.

The Good Buy, UUSC’s online store, recently published a blog with resources on how you can get involved in the Fashion Revolution campaign, a new movement to wake up people to the continued injustice in the garment industry.