Three months after the earthquake that devastated Nepal, World Pulse members are among the grassroots leaders revitalizing the country.
At 11:56 AM on Saturday, April 25, 2015 Aparna Singh was facilitating a workshop for 15 girls in Jawalakhel, Nepal. When the ground beneath her began to move violently, Aparna shepherded the girls outside and could only watch in horror as the buildings around them began to topple. At the same moment, three miles away in Kathmandu, Dhruba Prasad Ghimire was with his children cleaning out what was supposed to become a new office building for his organization, Rural Women's Network Nepal.
Elsewhere in Kathmandu, Oliin Rai was walking home from church, while Richa Bhusal was rushing from her home in search of safety. Mina Thapa was in the village of Nawalpur, in a meeting to prepare for a new empowerment program. Purna Shova Chitrakar, at a conference in Bhaktapur district, tried to run outside but didn’t make it out of the building before the shaking stopped her in her tracks.
These World Pulse members are activists, social workers, and social entrepreneurs—leaders in grassroots women’s organizations across Nepal. Three months ago, following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook their homeland, they became survivors. Overnight, they all took on the role of relief workers.
On that day, Aparna, Dhruba, Oliin, Richa, Mina, and Purna emerged from crumbling buildings into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. They all shared similar accounts of the days following the earthquake: electricity and telecommunication outages; essential services ground to a halt; a slow response from a government ill-equipped to handle the scale of the disaster.
The world would soon discover the magnitude of what was lost: More than 8,000 lives; treasured monuments and temples; more than 500,000 homes, leaving thousands of families without shelter.
But in the days following the earthquake, the leaders we interviewed remained focused on the people around them who needed help. While foreign donors have now pledged over $3 billion dollars in aid to Nepal for relief and rebuilding, many of the most urgent needs in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake were not met by governments or large agencies.
Instead, grassroots leaders—including those in the World Pulse network—were often first on the scene. Today, they remain at the center of efforts to rebuild Nepal’s future.
Filling a Void
When Purna Shova Chitrakar returned to the training center for her organization Women Development Society (WODES) shortly after the earthquake, she found it, along with two other nearby buildings, crushed to rubble. She immediately joined rescue efforts.
“There were conjectures of a hundred people still inside at the time,” she recalls. “All of us—neighbors, family members—spent about 40 hours on the scene, sometimes giving calls to get the demolition crew, sometimes to the police to send rescue teams, and sometimes to the ambulance service to take injured people to the hospital.”
“When people were rescued alive,” she remembers, “they would wave their hands from their stretchers, even though they were unable to speak, as if to thank us.”
She wished above all else for their wellbeing, “but wishes are insubstantial,” she says.
Within four days, 48 people in the building had already died.
Purna’s own house had not collapsed, so she opened her garden to 100 of her neighbors. The money in her purse allowed her to buy noodles and biscuits to feed survivors. “We shared and ate together,” she says. “Even in moments of chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil, those moments were moments of hope and happiness.”
Purna’s experience in the aftermath of the earthquake is not unique. Across the country, activists on the ground and grassroots organizations drew on their resources and community relationships to provide immediate assistance to survivors.
Dhruba of Rural Women’s Network Nepal began purchasing food and sanitation items for the most vulnerable women and children in his community with his own money, while appealing to friends for additional assistance.
The office of Women LEAD, the leadership development organization where Aparna works, transformed overnight into a safe space for girls to gather and a hub to distribute needed supplies.
As the disaster threatened to interrupt education, the organization sprung into action. Aparna says it was the youth and alumni from their LEADers program who came up with the idea to collect their books and notes into study kits. They delivered the kits to students who had suddenly lost their study materials in the midst of preparing for exams.
Organizations that work daily with women and children, and particularly with the most marginalized of these populations, were able to mobilize quickly to provide services to those most at risk. The Karuna Foundation Nepal, which works in many of the rural areas that were hit hardest by the earthquake, was distributing supplies within 24 hours. Richa Bhusal describes how these rural areas have also presented some of the most pressing challenges to rebuilding. “We had to drop relief materials from a helicopter in few parts of Gorkha,” she says.
Even before the earthquake, the Karuna Foundation was focused on issues of disability. Richa is haunted by the story of a disabled girl who was raped after the earthquake. She explains that people with disabilities are the most vulnerable and affected by natural disasters, and yet they often take the least priority. The Karuna Foundation’s ongoing work with disabled communities helped them to distribute supplies to disabled earthquake survivors, who can be difficult to reach.
Higher Ground Nepal, which provides income-generating opportunities and empowerment training to prevent human trafficking, has run a counseling center for years. But Oliin Rai, manager of the Higher Ground Craft Store, says that before the earthquake, many community members were unfamiliar with the idea of counseling and its benefits. Now, following the earthquake, people are more receptive.
Higher Ground has recently taken its counseling services into schools and the wider community in an attempt to begin healing a traumatized population.
“Attitudes are changing,” says Oliin. As more people begin to participate in the recreational activities, trauma education, and group therapy, the community is becoming more aware of this valuable resource.
Mina Thapa recalls how quickly priorities shifted after the earthquake. The day of the quake she was in meetings to prepare for the launch of a new empowerment program for women farmers.
In the wake of the disaster, this program, like so much in her country, was put on hold. Her organization, Mother Sister Nepal, shifted its resources to supply food, tents, and blankets to those in need. They also took over the care of several children who lost their parents in the disaster.
Mina says they couldn’t ignore these immediate needs, but she believes the time will come when empowered women farmers will also be needed for Nepal to rebuild. She hopes her organization can soon pick up where it left off.
Mina’s story underlines what many are saying: Before the earthquake hit, grassroots organizations and leaders were already stretched thin. They have stepped in by adding earthquake relief work to a long list of vital services they were already providing their communities. In many cases, they are meeting increased demands by purchasing supplies on credit, extending their work hours, or working without pay.
Looking to the Future
These testimonies highlight a tension that can exist between immediate and long-term needs. Environmental issues, inequality, violence against women, lingering effects of civil conflicts: all are still pressing issues, exacerbated by the devastation.
The earthquake has made some existing problems, like human trafficking, conspicuously worse.
UNICEF estimates approximately 12,000 children are trafficked to India from Nepal each year. This was the number before the earthquake. Today, even more women and children are at risk. “People are more desperate now,” says Oliin of Higher Ground. She explains that this desperation can make families vulnerable to exploitation as traffickers sell false promises of a better life for their kids.
That is why the prevention programs, the long range vision, the ongoing work of these organizations is so essential. Oliin says Higher Ground’s goals for the future haven't changed, despite the events of the last three months. To prevent trafficking, she says, the girls most at risk need opportunities to create better lives for themselves.
Dhruba of Rural Women’s Network Nepal also believes investment in creating money-generating opportunities for women is essential “so they can survive on their income for the long term.”
What this “long term” will look like for Nepal is the question mark that will remain once the disaster headlines and donor dollars fade, once the voluntourists return home, and the people of Nepal begin to resume their lives.
Nepal is rebuilding on shaky ground. Aftershocks have continued in some regions, and thousands still lack permanent homes as the monsoon season begins, refueling humanitarian concerns. Still, many are beginning to shift their focus to the future.
A Facebook group launched by Higher Ground is filled with images that hint at what that future has to offer: students back in school with scholarship assistance; children smiling through painted faces at camps staffed by youth volunteers. Now at over 4,000 members, the group was established as a platform for young people to share their creativity and develop their leadership. The name of the group, We Will Rise Up!, echoes what we’ve been hearing from Nepali members of our network: The people of Nepal aspire for more than just survival.
With Oliin and Aparna and Dhruba and Purna and Richa and Mina out there on the front lines championing women and the vulnerable citizens in their communities, it is easy to envision Nepal rising up even stronger than before.
All of the leaders featured in this story are World Pulse members. You can connect directly with Aparna, Dhruba Prasad Ghimire, oliin.rai, Richa Bhusal, Purna, and MotherSisterNepal on our website. Simply join World Pulse if you are not yet a member, and use the messaging feature. You can also find updates on how you can support these and other Nepal members in World Pulse's Resource Exchange. Click here to browse the resource needs posted by World Pulse members in Nepal.