Inspiration as we rebuildVenturing into masonry will improve women’s income and help them challenge traditional gender roles
“Women are not masons,” Hira Maan, tells Maala, when she requests him to hire her to build his house. Responding cynically to Maala’s argument about her being a trained and qualified mason, he says, “You don’t need trainings to build a house. You only need experience.”
A dejected Maala leaves.
Then Hira Maan’s experienced mason abandons his job site, as his work fails to meet the government certified standards. Hira Maan then calls Maala and she gets a chance to showcase her building skills. Since she has been trained, she knows how deep the foundation needs to be and at what level the plinth has to be set in, so that the house can be built earthquake-safe.
The scene is from the first episode of Katha Maala, a radio drama being co-produced by Radio Nepal with BBC Media Action. The narrator, Maala (played by Shivani Singh Tharu) is a milk-maid who went from door-to-door, selling milk, while sharing valuable information on improved living and safety in temporary shelters right after the April 2015 earthquake. In the new series of the drama, she appears in her new avatar as a dakarmi (mason). She decided to train as a mason so that she could build her own house, support community reconstruction and find an alternative source of income. As reconstruction gets underway in her village, there is a dearth of masons with the exodus of the village youth to the Gulf countries as migrant workers.
The drama was brought back in its second season, after pilot tests in rural and semi-urban areas revealed that the audience appreciated the character of Maala. For them, the portrayal of women as masons was arguably the most appealing aspect of the drama. Most of the female participants in the listener’s group said it motivated them to try and do something new in life. They also said the drama was inspirational to others in their family and society, as it portrays the society as being very accepting and supportive of a woman who wants to switch her profession from a milk-seller to a mason.
The demand for masons is high in the earthquake affected districts, with the government making an early estimate for the need of up to 60,000 masons. According to the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), 25,000 masons have been trained by different organisations in different districts. And although figures disaggregated by gender are not available yet, the NRA says women have also received the training in several districts.
During a recent visit to Sankhu, one of the worst quake-affected areas, I watched women carrying huge dokos (wicker baskets) on their backs, transferring bricks from the rubble to a nearby construction site, assisting their male colleagues, who were doing the more technical side of the work. At construction sites anywhere in the country, these sights are common. Women will be seen carrying bricks slung by a namlo haltered to their heads, or sacks of sand on their backs, and sifting and ferrying sand, as they assist the masons, who are usually male.
With the surge in construction activities in most of the earthquake affected districts, more hands are needed at reconstruction sites. This is one of the reasons women have training as masons. A few women have tried to challenge the traditional roles of women at construction sites in the past.
In a recent interview on BBC Media Action’s Milijuli Nepali radio show, Sarita Rai, who has been working as a mason for the last six years, said that she was delighted to see that more and more women have started to work as masons.
“In the past, women were not doing work like building the wall. No one was working with the rods either. Due to labour migration, there aren’t many men in the villages so women have to fill in for them anyway,” says Rai.
“The work is easy once you’ve been trained,” says Devi Tamang, who has just been trained as a mason. “People stop to stand and stare when they see a woman building a wall. The dais working with us say it is unusual for women to been seen building walls,” Tamang laughs and adds that she has been telling her women colleagues who work as jyamis (helpers) to ‘not just carry a burden but to learn to do technical work as well. “I tell them it’s possible. I didn’t even realise what a big change I was in for when I took this training”.
The masons are currently being trained for seven days to build earthquake resilient homes, while there is two-month-long training available for those without masonry experience. Tamang and Rai concur that there needs to be quality in work so that the homeowners can trust them, and they can get more work.
This is where the role of the media comes in. While helping those who are rebuilding to find the information they need to build back strong and safe, the media also need to introduce role models. Hence the need for characters like Maala who lead by example. Instead of portraying women as characters who only further the storyline where men are the protagonists, the media need to introduce women as leaders.
“Unless we include women in the reconstruction process, it is impossible to dream of completing the rebuilding work soon enough,” Ranjan Dhungel, an engineer from National Society for Earthquake Technology said on Milijuli Nepali. “Building is not about strength. It is about using techniques. And once you train people how to use levers, it reduces the need for great physical labour.”
Women staggering under the weight they carry, seemingly gliding gracefully as they try not to trip, is a common sight at construction sites. As we focus on the reconstruction scenario, maybe we have a chance to change this scene in some ways.
While the April earthquake is a reminder for preparedness, it is also an opportunity to improve engineering and to create additional jobs. Venturing into masonry will not only improve the income of women already working at construction sites, it will also provide a chance to help them challenge traditional gender roles. It is important that the media support such positive changes.
Tuladhar works with BBC Media Action’s reconstruction radio programme, Milijuli Nepali