Endless Aftershocks

April 28 marks the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal. The article below, which first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Ms., outlines the ongoing devastation facing the nation’s women. Subscribe to Ms. today to read more global news with a feminist lens.

Five-year-old Shirisha, once the Tamang family chatterbox, barely speaks now. She watches her mother and sister battle to plant rice in cracked soil and watches her grandmother struggle to fasten the tarp, her family’s fragile protection from the monsoon. When she closes her eyes, Shirisha sees the face of her sister, Swornima. A man came to the family’s village and promised 14-year- old Swornima a new life as a chambermaid at a hotel. Shirisha didn’t like him—but what else was there to do, her mother wondered aloud to her and her other sister, 10-year-old Kukee, with their father gone and too many mouths to feed?

Manbu, the Tamangs’ village, is typical of mountain communities devastated by the spring 2015 earthquakes, the deadliest in the history of Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest countries. The quakes killed 8,786 people, destroyed more than 500,000 homes and triggered avalanches on Mount Everest, Nepal’s key tourism revenue source. Almost a year later, clean water, food and electricity remain in short supply in some districts, and an Indian border blockade—a protest by the border-dwelling Madhesi tribe against the new Nepali Constitution—has cut off vital supplies of gas and medicine. Hundreds of thousands of families subsist in temporary structures of metal sheets and tarpaulins.

Women and girls bear the brunt of the social toll. An Oxfam report found that women and girls fear physical and sexual abuse in temporary shelters. The U.N. estimated that 40,000 women were at risk of suffering gender-based violence after the earthquakes. Malati Maskey, Action- Aid Nepal’s women’s rights coordinator, notes, “Women care for family and community, so are at the front line coping with immediate disaster impacts: poverty and sanitation. They’re also most at risk of medium-term impacts: trafficking and violence.”

U.N. Women estimates there are approximately 318,000 female-headed households—like the Tamangs—in the 13 most earthquake-impacted districts. Facing stigma, these families get little support from their communities in clearing debris and building more permanent shelters. Furthermore, women family heads—often widows—have difficulty accessing loans and compensation without a male guarantor.

As of 2012, Nepal ranks 102 out of 148 countries on the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index. Eighteen percent of adult women have a secondary-level education, compared with 40 percent of men. Nepal’s maternal mortality ratio, 190 in 100,000 births according to Population Reference Bureau, compares to a developed-world average of 16 deaths per 100,000 births. In 2010, suicide overtook maternal mortality as the leading cause of death among women ages 15 to 49.

Gendered prejudices overlap caste-based discrimination. The U.N. Population Fund reports that an estimated 93,000 women were pregnant at the time of the disaster. Says Janice Miller of the children’s charity Kidasha, “Access to reproductive care is already patchy in rural areas, and now a number of key rural birthing centers have collapsed. This worsens a picture in which many lower-caste women don’t access medical care be- cause they fear health professionals’ prejudices.”

Although it’s difficult to collect data on the gendered impacts of the quakes, analysts at Nepal’s Center for Research on Environment Health and Population Activities predict a rise in rates of child marriage and labor and sex trafficking of girls.

The government is concerned about a phenomenon exacerbated by the earthquakes: forced institutionalization of children into bogus orphanages created as baits for voluntourism money. After the earthquakes, Nepal suspended new registration of such “homes” to stem this illicit trade. Miller says, “Families are pressured to sell their children into orphanages or ‘jobs’ that turn out to be bonded labor or sex work. The pressures on impoverished families are phenomenal, [and that was] even before their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.” Such was the case with the Tamangs, whose daughter Swornima went to work in a large city—and has not been heard from since.

The disaster boosted another industry profiting from women’s poverty: gestational surrogacy. In 2013, India banned couples married less than two years and same-sex would-be parents from commissioning Indian surrogates, so the industry looked north, where the practice is unregulated. Nepal’s now-burgeoning surrogacy business surfaced last April, when Israel airlifted 26 infants out of the earthquake-struck nation; the babies were commissioned by Israelis, born to Nepalese surrogates.

While the Nepalese government issued an interim halt in August last year on the commissioning of commercial surrogacy services, the country’s women’s rights advocates fear the financial attractions of the industry will ultimately win out. “There is a lot of pressure from doctors to legalize this sector of the medical tourism industry,” says Mohna Ansari, former commissioner at Nepal’s National Women Commission. “From the women’s side, there is a lot of poverty and many single mothers after the earthquakes, so surrogacy money is a temptation.”

And Nepal may not yet have seen the worst. A study published in Nature Geoscience warns that last spring’s earthquakes released only a fraction of the energy trapped in the major geological fault beneath Nepal.

Nevertheless, there is cause for hope. In October, Nepal elected Bidhya Devi Bhandari, a communist politician who has long campaigned for women’s rights, as its first woman president—an honorific companion role to the new communist prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli. And, according to a report due to be finalized this year, Nepal has achieved many of its U.N. Millennium Development Goals.

Moreover, some in the tourism industry are cautiously optimistic about its future prospects. The Pokhara-based trekking company 3 Sisters Adventure, founded 22 years ago, is a model for women’s empowerment, providing employment opportunities to marginalized women in the mountain regions; 95 percent of its employees, from office administrators to trek leaders, are women.

Archana Karki Chhetri, 3 Sisters’ program manager, is hopeful about the guarantee of women’s parliamentary representation written into the new constitution. “We hope that Bidhya Devi Bhandari will bring in the changes she promises for Nepali women,” she says. “Our women are selfless, powerful and corruption-free. Women will be the future of Nepal.”

Photo courtesy of ILO in Asia and the Pacific on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0