Women emerge stronger in quake-hit Nepal

25 April 2016


Rasuwa, Nepal - In immediate aftermath of huge earthquake of 25 April 2015, Sabina Rimal (25) packed her bags and headed out to help.

As part of a team from the Women’s Human Rights Protection Network, a local NGO, she made for hard-hit Dunche, in the remote Himalayan district of Rasuwa. 

“We were all in shock,” Rimal says. “Many of us lost our homes and relatives, but when we got there, it was clear that their suffering was way worse than ours. They asked us to bring whatever we could carry, especially rice and tarpaulins."

Of the estimated 9000 people killed and 600,000 displaced by the earthquake, significant numbers were affected in hard-to-reach Rasuwa, and 85 per cent of the district’s health facilities were damaged.

“Some very recent mothers were trapped under the rubble of their houses," says Rimal. "They were rescued and brought to our [emergency health and displacement] camp.”

Sabina Rimal (left) meets a local woman at a UNFPA supported Female Friendly Space in Dunche, Nepal. ©UNFPA 


The plan was to work fast with the government and aid agencies to get lifesaving supplies, care and support to the many pregnant women and new mothers in the area.

“We went out to the villages to see what we could offer, then we took sanitary pads and other things with us,” says Rimal.

After assessing the needs of women and girls in the district, she set up a Female Friendly Space - a home to give shelter, comfort and counselling to women and girls affected by the quake.

And with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Rimal’s team grew from three to 17, with a further 10 staff going door-to-door at any one time.

“The Female Friendly Spaces give shelter as well as physical, emotional and psychological shelter and support,” says Sudha Pant, a UNFPA Gender Specialist.

“Through bonding and sharing, women go through a healing process. By overcoming trauma they can start to rebuild their lives," she adds.

"But the bonds they build, with staff and each other, also lead them to delve into some of the deeper, hidden issues that hurt them, including sexual and domestic violence.” 

Sabina Rimal teaches local girls about the dangers of child marriage and trafficking at the Female Friendly Space in Dunche, Nepal. ©UNFPA


Sarita (24) found the Dunche Female Friendly Space after fleeing an abusive husband.

“I didn’t know about places that helped with things like this, so I stayed with him,” she says.

“But he kept drinking, hurting me and my daughter and smashing up the place.” 

In the year since the earthquake, Sabina Rimal’s team have given shelter, counselling and legal referral support to hundreds of women who have suffered domestic and sexual violence.

Her team has reached over 15,000 people, including through raising awareness on the dangers of trafficking, child marriage and other damaging practices.

“The root of many of the problems that women face here is sex,” Rimal explains. 

“It’s the same for girls aged 15 and women of 70, the men want it and the women don’t, so the women suffer.”

Giulia Vallese, UNFPA’s Representative in Nepal, says that support for vulnerable women and girls must stay front and centre as the emergency relief efforts give way to longer-term reconstruction. 

“Through work with communities. we know violence against women spiked after the earthquake,” she says.

“In the camps there was often no light. People were drunk or engaging in substance abuse, so women and girls were scared to even go to the toilet at night.”

“As the fabric of society broke down, fear, insecurity and violence against women went up,” Vallese explains.

A woman sells toiletries on a bridge in Kathmandu. ©UNFPA 


In the year since the earthquake, the 14 UNFPA supported Female Friendly Spaces have reached over 410,000 people in the 14 hardest-hit districts of Nepal.

“The deeper work to tackle the attitudes and beliefs that fuel violence against women is just getting going, and there’s far more to do,” says Vallese.

For victims of domestic violence in Nepal, fear, stigma and having nowhere to turn often compound the problem. Many are to frightened to go home and often don’t have that choice, as stigma and shame force them away from their families.

Fortunately, based on the work done through the Female Friendly Spaces, Nepal’s government recently committed to setting up more crisis centres for victims.

Attached to district hospitals, they will “provide health, legal advice, police referrals and counselling,” explains UNFPA’s Vallese.

Sarita stands by the Female Friendly Space in Dunche, where she receives care, support and advice. ©UNFPA


Back in Dunche, husbands are now joining the orientation sessions on women’s rights and roles in society with their wives at the Female Friendly Space. 

“We faced a lot of resistance when we started all this,” says Rimal. 

“I was threatened, and many men thought we would make their lives more difficult by helping women to think differently."

"But after they come here, they start to understand, to work with us and to act better.”