Updated: October 22, 2015 06:02 PM GMT
Two women walk past the remains of a collapsed house in northeastern Nepal. After the April 25 earthquake, Nepal's single women have faced particular difficulties. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
For 34-year-old Kabita Lawaju, life seems to be a series of disasters. She lost her family in the earthquake and now her in-laws have abandoned her to fend for herself.
Lawaju worked in a local savings and credit cooperative and had just left for work after having lunch with her husband, 20-month-old daughter and 10-year-old son when the 7.8 magnitude quake hit the country six months ago on April 25.
Both children died the same day. Her husband died while undergoing treatment, barely 24 hours after being rescued from under the rubble of their collapsed home.
But for Lawaju, the tragedy brought on by the earthquake did not end with the loss of her family or her home. Her in-laws distanced themselves from her for fear that they would now have to look after her and include her in any share of family-owned property.
"I was denied the aid money provided by the government as my husband's family did not agree to sign a relationship document with my dead husband," Lawaju said. "I was not allowed to stay with the joint family of my husband. I stayed with my sister for some weeks before taking refuge in my parents' house."
"I lost my whole family in the disaster. I don't find peace here," said Lawaju, her eyes brimming with tears.
Kabita Lawaju, in front holding a photo of her son, and other women march in August to remember family members that died during the earthquake. (Photo by Pragati Shahi)
Relief aid denied to single women
About one in four people in Nepal were affected by the earthquake, their lives wrecked and in shambles like the buildings around them. Officially, more than 9,000 people lost their lives in the Himalayan country of 28 million, but the actual number may never be known.
Lawaju's story is often repeated in Nepal where women are traditionally disadvantaged by an oppressive patriarchal cultural system and where laws differentiate between women's and men's citizenship rights, leaving the socioeconomic status of women very poor.
Women are considered as "paraya dhan" (someone else's property) and their lives are strongly influenced by their fathers, husbands and sons, leaving them with little say in their own lives.
Hence women — especially those whose husbands have abandoned them, widows, divorcees, single mothers — are particularly vulnerable, and this is made worse by the earthquake. The latest census in 2011 puts the total number of single women in the country as 498,606.
Sunita Baram, 42, a widow with three daughters from Gorkha, the epicenter of the quake, has a similar tale.
Baram's house was damaged and the local village refused to support her family's application for government relief aid.
"I had no one to help me with the earthquake victim card required to apply for relief materials and financial support from the government," said Baram, who has since been living in a temporary shelter in an open field.
"Villagers told me that providing me with the ... card was meaningless as I, along with my daughters being women would sooner or later leave the place," Baram said.
As per government statistics, between 2000 and 25,000 women lost their husbands in the earthquake.
The majority of such single women were left out of immediate relief support and rehabilitation in caring for their families and in rebuilding their houses.
The government required a string of documents — including property rights papers, migration papers and marriage certificates — just to obtain the official earthquake victim cards allowing access to vital relief supplies. For many women, this onerous process proved to be an insurmountable barrier.
Providing community support
"Many single women coming from poor and marginalized communities had no idea about this and other community members did not support them, leaving the situation after the earthquake more precarious," said Nirmala Dhungana, president of the Kathmandu-based group Women for Human Rights, which advocates for single women.
"Government and local authorities were unable to address the problem. Various problems arose immediately after the earthquake such as trafficking, sexual harassment and rape, mental health problems for women and children," she added.
Her group has been providing psychosocial support and assistance to acquire legal documents such as the earthquake identity cards and citizenship certificates to single women in the earthquake-affected districts.
Likewise, to provide immediate relief aid, various Catholic relief organizations have been visiting the most affected districts to focus on helping women and children.
Good Shepherd Sister Taskila Nicholas pointed out that soon after the quake, nuns from her congregation visited Gorkha district to provide counseling and support to single women.
In collaboration with UNICEF, Caritas Nepal and other Catholic NGOs provided community-based support and training for affected people, she said.
"Besides trauma counseling, we want to focus on ... anti-human trafficking of women and children by providing the needed counseling and support in affected areas," said Sister Nicholas.
Moral support, counseling and community-based rehabilitation are prioritized in the hope of rehabilitating single women back to society after the disaster, she said.
Likewise, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who had been working with women in Kavre district long before the earthquake, have similar plans.
"We have been working for the livelihoods and empowerment of women, particularly single women," said Sister Aisha.
Her congregation has been organizing residential programs for more than two decades, providing leadership and skills training for people across the country.
"This year, we will bring 25 women from earthquake-affected districts, particularly single women, for the residential program," she said.
Bimala Rai, a member of the National Planning Commission, told ucanews.com that single women "have been facing social stigma and lack of support starting from the family, community and the state for a long time."
Access to resources and services provided by the state, the right to property and acceptance in the family are some of the existing problems for women, especially from dalit and poor groups.
The government is working to help single women by building them houses through community-based construction, and providing them options such as masonry and electrician training so that they can build their own house and also earn an income, said Rai.
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