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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.