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.