Women in reconstructionBeyond the sound of children playing and the occasional buses and motorbikes, there is a calming sound in most parts of Laharepauwa village in Rasuwa, north of Kathmandu.
Beyond the sound of children playing and the occasional buses and motorbikes, there is a calming sound in most parts of Laharepauwa village in Rasuwa, north of Kathmandu. Hidden from sight by Rasuwa’s lush greenery, the Trishuli River is a constant travel companion. These days, however, Laharepauwa has a new sound track—the commotion of construction work.
Ishwari Thapa Magar, 33, is working hard under the early summer sun. A woman wearing a yellow hard hat and a bright orange jacket over a kurta is a rare sight in Laharepauwa but one that is increasingly common today. Along with nine men and women, Ishwari is mixing cement, carrying bricks and putting up windows into a two-room brick house. When the house is complete, this will be the first time in two years that Ishwari will have solid walls to lean against, a roof that doesn’t leak and a door that locks.
Like many women in Laharepauwa, Ishwari is training to be a mason. The construction of her home is part of her 50-day mason training. “Two rooms are not enough for my family, but it is much better than living in a temporary shelter,” she says, looking at her father in-law Dhan Bahadur Thapa Magar, 66, as if to seek approval. Ishwari has never had a job before, but when she completes her training, she hopes to be a more independent person through holding down a regular construction job. “I want to contribute to our household expenses and to put my two sons through school,” she says.
With so many men from Nepal’s villages travelling to work abroad as migrant labourers, the role of women in reconstruction is significant. The earthquakes of 2015 hit Rasuwa hard. While many brick and cement buildings were left standing, many of the stone houses were either completely destroyed or damaged enough to be too risky to live in. The need to build an earthquake-resilient home is a priority for most people.
The task of rebuilding homes has a number of challenges—having an adequate number of trained masons is a major one. The International NGO—Helvetas with UK aid support is working to encourage local women to receive mason training. Although the initiative provides a very basic stipend and at 50 days it is much longer than most training initiatives and takes up most of the day, the benefit is that the income of trained masons can go up three-fold, from Rs 300, to Rs 1,000 per day.
Another challenge is building back houses that represent the specific culture of Nepal’s different regions—not uniform tin-roofed blocks. This is well recognised and being addressed by the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA).
A few hours’ scenic drive from Laharepauwa, through a road that is only partly black-topped is the village of Bhorle. As you climb up the terraced hillside, a number of things hint at what village activity you might see. There is the piercing tone of a stone-cutting machine at the foot of the hill, a rectangular piece of land that’s been cleared up of trees and has several large holes dug in, and several piles of sand and cement.
Bhagvati Paudel, 30, Shubha Paudel, 18, and Jhamka Kumari Paudel, 38 are working in the back of a ceiling-less stone house. Like Ishwari, they are 33 days into training to work as masons. “It would be so great if we could find work as masons after our training is complete. There are so many houses that need to be built in our village,” says Jhamka Kumari, gesturing toward a small valley scattered with temporary shelters. Shubha, the youngest of the three, cuts her short, “But men in our village think women are only suited to house work, that we cannot do anything else!”
This view is not lost on any of the women who are training to work as masons that this is a role that traditionally men have filled in Rasuwa, and in other parts of Nepal. “Men believe that construction work is too tough for women. But lifting heavy objects and working in the sun all day is hardly new to most of us,” says Bhagvati, a mother of two. Women are the agricultural workers in most Nepali villages, carrying loads as a routine. It is clear that they are quite ready to challenge traditional gender roles.
Nearby, at Mahalaxmi Women’s Cooperative in Rupsepani, Bhorle, its chairman echoes Bhagvati’s views but opines that as with any job, women will need to lead by example and prove that they are as qualified to work as masons. Her cooperative also doubles as a resource centre which coordinates demand for construction material, purchases in bulk and helps locals enjoy reduced prices.
Down the hill in Bogatitar village, nearer to neighbouring Nuwakot district, a pile of compressed earth blocks creates an unusual point of interest. Here too as in Bhorle and Laharepauwa, there are women operating a machine to manufacture earth blocks. Januka and Nani Maya say they would like to continue to work in block manufacturing where they earn a wage, adding that because these earth blocks have now been approved by government engineers, they hope it will be used more.
A quick calculation shows that these earth blocks cost only Rs 1,900 per square metre, compared to Rs 3,500 per square metre for a brick wall, close to half the cost of the bricks but are resilient and appropriate for building. These blocks also take lesser time to build with owing to their larger size. Less time means reduced labour costs. Lowering the cost of rebuilding using alternative building materials and techniques is crucial—one of the deterrents to the reconstruction process is that people are too poor to begin building. Pilots for this new technology are being built.
Here too, as in many other villages in Rasuwa, it is women who are the main workforce of this new enterprise, showcasing one more case where women are taking the lead to building back their villages, and in the process their lives. Reconstruction is well underway in Rasuwa two years on, and providing new work opportunities for men, and especially for women.