Last women firstWidowed by the war, rendered homeless by the earthquakes, Nepal’s conflict widows have drawn the shortest straws and are grappling to stay afloat
As a young girl, Garima Shrestha, a 36-year-old resident of Machhegaun in Kathmandu, always wanted to have a big, gregarious family. When she was married, she let her husband, a cadet of the army, know that she wanted two children and a house of their own in the Valley. Once they had their first daughter, they had even started contemplating breaking away from her husband’s family home and purchasing some land.
On August 7, 2005, Shrestha would lose her husband during the attack on an army base in Kalikot, crushing all the dreams they had dared to dream together, leaving her as a single parent to their five-year-old daughter.
“I was devastated,” says Shrestha, “and as I would come to understand later, it is not easy being a single parent or a young widow in this country.”
She confides that with little education and barely any life skills, she struggled to make sure that her daughter, now a teenager, could be educated and independent one day.
But fate had other plans. Shrestha, who had been living in a two-room wing of her husband’s ancestral family home, watched in horror as the earthquakes of last year badly damaged her house, leaving her and her daughter homeless.
“I have to be strong for my daughter. I want to be able to build a strong house to keep her safe,” Shrestha says. She shared that after spending the first monsoon after the quake inside a tent, they moved back into the damaged house in the winter. “We did not feel safe living in the tent. We heard that many single women and their children were being robbed or exploited in tents,” she explained.
Her share of the house now has just a single room. She was able to install a door and a small window before they moved in, but the walls remain precariously cracked and deformed.
To add to Shrestha’s woes, in the 11 years since her husband’s death, she still has not been able to obtain his share of the family property. “I am not sure if I will even get any property,” she says, “I am a widow with a daughter and not a son, you see. We have all the possible odds stacked against us.”
Shrestha, despite trying repeatedly over the last decade, still does not ‘officially’ own her wing of the house, as the property ownership certificates remain with her unwilling in-laws. That also means that she was not able to directly apply to the reconstruction grants provided by the government. She will receive what the family chooses to allow to trickle down to her. This is not the tale of Shrestha alone. According to Women for Human Rights (WHR), a single women’s collective, there are hundreds of widows who have been brought to the streets by the earthquake.
Sarita Dhakal of Gorkha, a widow, lost her husband in the early days of the conflict. The roof over her head collapsed in the Gorkha quake last year and the pressure of raising two teenage children and having to build a house on her own has taken a toll on her. “I do not want to reopen the wounds of war. I want assistance to build my house and keep my children safe,” said Dhakal.
Rita Manandhar of Bhaktapur, too, is struggling to build her house which was destroyed by the earthquake. Manandhar’s husband was shot dead by the insurgents in front of her and her small daughter, scarring both for life.
Following the cold-blooded execution, Manandhar fought the legal system for nine years to inherit her share of property. She was eventually able to build a house on roughly one anna of land in the Balgopal area in Bhaktapur. Before the earthquakes, she had been renting out rooms in the house as her only source of income. That is gone now.
“A young widow has added burdens. Young girls without a spouse are scrutinised by society. To add to that, suddenly, you became solely responsible for your young children,” said Manandhar, 37, who lost her husband 14 years ago. She remains adamant that the Rs 200,000 to be provided by the government will not put a dent on the actual money needed to rebuild a house in a place like Kathmandu.
“I have neither the money nor the human resource to rebuild my house. How will I be able to rebuild my house in the capital with just Rs 200,000?” questions Manandhar.
According to Nirmala Dhungana, president of the Single Women Group, another women’s collective, this is the tale of many widows in the country who are facing social stigma for being a widow.
“These women have shown great resilience in dealing with two big tragedies in such a short time. Many come from economically poor backgrounds and need support from the state,” said Dhungana. She further adds that keeping all the quake affected victims in one basket will not be fair to these women. According to Dhungana, the lack of marriage registration prohibits many single women from claiming their husband’s property.
WHR has been lobbying with the government that it must take a ‘last women first’ approach, to ensure that these widows of the civil war, who have lived through two tragedies in a decade, get their due and that the reconstruction is equal.
According to the 2011 census, there are 498,606 widows in the country. Some lost their spouses during the conflict; many others were widowed when their husbands came home in coffins from Malaysia and the Middle East. It is estimated that around 2,000 women lost their husbands to the earthquake.
According to Women for Human Rights and the Single Women Group, single women are usually living in substandard housing units with lower income. More appalling, however, according to the census, is that only 19.17 percent of Nepali women own property in their own name. And according to Dhungana, the time is rife to set historic injustices right, “If not,” she warns, “these single women will fall through the cracks, not for the first time, but maybe for the last.”