Nepal's earthquake: grassroots women as first responders

Networks of Nepali grassroots women are reconstituting protective guards against increased violence against women, and have compiled core guidelines for relief workers to ensure the particular needs of women and girls are met.

Renu Rajbhandari Yifat Susskind
14 May 2015

Imagine a first responder to a natural disaster. If you imagined a man piloting a helicopter and airdropping supplies, you are only seeing part of the big picture. In communities facing disaster worldwide, the first and most lasting helping hand often comes from a much closer source: grassroots women leaders.

Women sitting around talking

Safe place for women after the earthquake. Photo: WOREC. All rights reserved

Here is a different mental image of a first responder, one that emerges from Nepal’s devastating earthquakes - the latest of the two striking last Tuesday. Think of a team of women loading the back of a truck with urgently needed food aid and health kits, including special supplies for pregnant women and nursing mothers. They set off to visit hard-hit communities, delivering support to people who have been living in tents since the earthquake struck.

This image should occupy a central space in our understanding of effective disaster response. Local organizations like the Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC), a Nepali grassroots women’s group, provide key examples to help us cement this image.

Advocacy and evidence-gathering by women leaders worldwide has led to governments and international agencies developing a greater understanding of gender-sensitive responses that grasp women’s distinct vulnerabilities to disaster. A natural disaster will impact everyone in its path, but not equally or in the same way.

Studies have shown that women are 14 times as likely as men to be killed by a natural disaster, due to - and exacerbated by -  gender discrimination. In the chaotic post-disaster period, women and girls face an escalated risk of sexual and gender-based violence, as the community spaces and ties that provided stability and safety are violently dismantled.

Yet, there is another picture that goes beyond this one that we must illuminate more clearly in policy and popular understanding of disaster: that of grassroots women’s leadership.

Post-earthquake in Nepal, this leadership has been evident, particularly among women who have previously organized themselves as rights defenders. Their community-based networks form a viable conduit for the effective delivery of humanitarian aid, and their history of community-based organizing has enabled them to coordinate quickly and deliver aid, including food, basic medical supplies and tents, to communities still shaking from major aftershocks.

Women’s health

In the days after the earthquake, grassroots women first responders quickly identified that in many communities the particular health needs of women and girls were going unmet.

For instance, the lack of basic feminine hygiene supplies puts women and girls at risk. Considering lingering taboos linked to menstruation, displaced women and girls may hesitate to request these supplies from health workers, despite being crucial to health and dignity. Grassroots women leaders employing a gender-sensitive analysis are primed to understand that basic feminine hygiene must be included in a first-tier response. If left unaddressed, women and girls without adequate supplies, private washing spaces and sanitary conditions can develop urinary tract infections and other adverse health effects. Local women have combated this through distribution of culturally-appropriate sanitary pads for women and adolescent girls.

Woman with baby wrapped in blankets

Mother with three-day-old baby. Photo: WOREC. All rights reserved

Networks of grassroots women have also mobilized to meet the needs of pregnant and lactating mothers, women that volunteers encountered in community after community living outdoors and under tarps. These mothers and pregnant women require specific medical, hygiene and nutritional care, a need that these local activists helped to meet by distributing food aid, health kits and lactation kits.

“The hospitals were full, and women with new babies were being discharged and sent home, even if their homes had been turned into a pile of rubble,” said Pratima Sharma, Programme Director of WOREC. “We helped one woman who was caring for a three-day old baby, but with no roof over her head.”

Women activists acted immediately to create a temporary shelter serving as a safe space for women and girls, including lactating mothers. This space can not only offer much needed privacy and security. It is also serving as a center for group and individual psychosocial care and counseling.

Woman holds child beside an aid tent

Displaced mother and child outside WOREC tent. Photo: WOREC. All rights reserved

“As local activists, we are committed to our people and to their wellbeing in all its forms. We will not leave them alone,” said Kamala Khatwe, a counselor of WOREC who came from the far southeastern district of Nepal to support women in Bhaktapur, a community just outside of Kathmandu.

Protection from violence

Disturbing reports have indicated that women and girls in Nepal are already facing a growing threat of trafficking, as criminal groups and agents take advantage of post-disaster chaos and desperation to prey on the most vulnerable. UN estimates have previously indicated that up to 15,000 women and girls are trafficked annually from Nepal, many sexually exploited in brothels in the region.

Other studies have shown that sexual violence escalates dramatically after a disaster, especially as the days and weeks drag on. In better times, women and girls can be guarded by the community bonds and state systems strengthened by women’s civil society organizing, such as legal protections and feminist public education that shifts community norms away from violence. When a disaster like an earthquake hits, those systems are shaken too. 

Grassroots women first responders help to reconstitute those protective guards for women and girls in the immediate aftermath of disaster. WOREC has set up anemergency hotline for women in danger of violence to call for help and support. The safe spaces mentioned above are a vehicle for maintaining community cohesion and supportive relationships. Women there can share their needs and fears, and take a first step towards organizing solutions. These actions lay the foundation for the long-term rebuilding of community.

An aid distribution truck

WOREC Aid distribution. Photo: WOREC. All rights reserved.

Moreover, distributing urgent humanitarian aid and health care protects women and girls from the desperation that can lead to sexual exploitation. When grassroots women step up and become visible as leaders in aid delivery, a girl can turn to them as mentors and protectors, evading the grasp of traffickers. A young woman who receives food aid can avoid being forced into the exploitative choice to exchange sex for a meal.

Recreating through reconstruction

A network of on-the-ground women activists has been hard at work since the earthquake, and they are expanding an already extensive, locally-rooted base of knowledge. Even as their vital aid delivery continued, WOREC compiled core guidelines to inform the relief practices of governments and aid agencies and to ensure that the particular needs of women and girls were met. These guidelines are concrete and actionable, resonating with the expertise of women first responders worldwide: from adequate lighting as a security measure in temporary encampments to the distribution of materials for feminine hygiene, from targeted food aid for lactating women to increased police patrols to protect women from violence.

Policymakers are increasingly turning to the essential question of how to rebuild their country. Nepal’s community of grassroots women organizers is ready to offer their leadership, and to help guarantee that reconstruction policies meet the needs of the most marginalized. Their demands centre on a crucial point: that women must not be seen only as recipients of aid but also as meaningful participants and leaders in reconstituting their country.

The name that WOREC gave to this emergency response speaks volumes: “Mission Sneha,” meaning love. We are driven by our love for all of Nepal’s women and families, resilient in the face of disaster and surviving with the help of grassroots women’s effective aid. We make this love concrete with every food package and health kit, and with every call for policymakers to embrace women’s guidance on the road to reconstruction ahead. Normal 0

MADRE has mobilized through its Emergency and Disaster Relief Fund to support Nepali grassroots women’s urgent responses to the earthquake.

Normal 0

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData