Women survivors of the earthquake struggle to cope with grief, loneliness and government neglect
Her second monsoon
Not much has changed in Nani Maiya Prajapati’s life since her husband and four other family members were killed when their house in Sankhu collapsed in last year’s earthquake. The only difference is that, unlike when we interviewed her last year for a page 1 story in this newspaper (below), she is no longer dressed in a white mourning sari.
Everything else is the same: the tin hut next to the ruins of her home, the recurring nightmares, the loneliness, the lack of cash, and a heavy sense of grief and loss that time has not healed.
Prajapati’s husband, daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and mother-in-law were all killed in the earthquake.
She does not have money to rebuild her home, and without her husband she does not know how to do the paperwork to seek official help. Many women survivors like her face their second monsoon in temporary shelters.
“The government hasn’t given us anything, and I can’t build a house by myself,” she said. “I am working in the fields and knitting sweaters just to earn enough to survive from day to day.”
Prajapati, 47, says she must look to the future. She has managed to buy some kitchen utensils, a gas cylinder, stove, and a clock (above). Time has ticked away while she waited for government help that never came.
Women still waiting to rebuild homes and lives
LEFT BEHIND: Nani Maiya Koju (right) and her daughter Samjhana are the sole survivors of their family. Nani Maiya holds a picture of her husband and son, who were killed in last year’s earthquake.
Inside a tin hut in Bhaktapur that now serves as a bedroom, kitchen and living room hangs a fading laminated photograph of two men. They resemble each other.
The picture is one of the few mementos Nani Maiya Koju, 50, has of her husband and son who were killed when their three-storied house collapsed in the earthquake in April 2015. Since then, Koju has had to deal with bereavement, support her remaining family, maintain the temporary shelter, try to obtain compensation, and ponder how she can rebuild her home and life.
“I lost my husband, elder son, and everything else during the earthquake,” she told us this week as monsoon rains pounded the tin roof. “Without the men in the family, no one speaks up for you.”
Koju also lost her younger son who was suffering from kidney problems, five months after the earthquake. She now lives in the hut with her 22-year-old daughter Samjhana. The Koju family’s circumstances reflect the special needs of thousands of other female-led households after the earthquake.
Nepal Police data shows that about 2,000 women were widowed in the earthquake, and some 50,000 women lost their homes. Just over a quarter of the total households impacted in the 14 affected districts are female-headed, according to a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment report prepared by the National Planning Commission last year.
In 2011 the UN decided to observe International Widows’ Day on 23 June each year.
Among the distinct problems faced by women survivors are the lack of land titles and house ownership papers, and limited access to economic resources, including a dearth of job prospects. It was usually the men in the family who worked the system, dealt with the bureaucracy. With them gone, most women face severe challenges in the recovery process.
“Women in the earthquake-affected districts face problems in obtaining compensation, as land is generally not registered in their names,” explained Lily Thapa at Women for Human Rights, an NGO that helps single women. “And the compensation process becomes even more difficult if the property is owned by their in-laws.”
The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has commenced the first phase of grant distribution. Each earthquake-hit family receives Rs 200,000 to rebuild homes, on top of the Rs 15,000 most survivors collected immediately after the calamity. But 14 months later, many women like Koju have not received either of the government grants.
NRA spokesperson Ram Prasad Thapaliya said the authority could in future come up with a ‘special grant’ to top up the payment, but only for certain single women. “We can give single women above 75 years of age a special grant as a priority area in future, and help them rebuild
their lives. But we need to come up with suitable criteria first.” However, he admitted that the NRA has not pinpointed single women or widows for special consideration thus far.
“A copy of a land ownership certificate from a government office is sufficient for property to be transferred to a wife’s name if the husband was killed in the earthquake,” Thapaliya said, “and a death certificate for the husband should be enough to secure compensation to rebuild a house.”
Despite assurances, an Emergency Fund for Single Women set up by the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare before the earthquake has not been revived to help female heads of households, proving that there is little coordination between the ministry and the NRA.
Thapa said the government has already collected Rs 30.5 million for an emergency fund earmarked for single women, adding: “We are lobbying the government to use those monies to help single women rebuild their homes.”
Many women like Koju blame fate for the deep personal tragedy they suffered in the earthquake. But it is easy to see that the government’s slow response in reconstruction is not fated, and has hit women survivors particularly hard.
The past 14 months have not been easy for Nirmala Maharjan. Hardly a moment passes without her being overcome by memories of the day when her home in Patan collapsed and she lost four members of her family.
Maharjan and her two sons were pulled out alive from the ruins, but her husband, sister, brother-in-law and seven-month-old niece were buried under the rubble. Even though her life was turned upside down in the blink of an eye, she is determined to move on despite her grief and the seemingly insurmountable challenges.
“Everything in my life changed after the quake but I have had to overcome the hurdles. Each day I tell myself that I am not the only one who is going through this,” says Maharjan, interviewed on International Widows' Day, as she gets her nine-year-old son Nikesh ready for school (left).
For the past year, she has been living in a small room provided by the community Guthi, and has been doing odd jobs — such as knitting and working in a canteen — to raise her family. After her story appeared in this newspaper last year, donations poured in and the school has waived the tuition fees for her sons.
“I can provide for my family, and not having a place to stay is my only worry,” she says, eyes brimming with tears. “I doubt if my father-in-law wants to give a share of the house to me. My in-laws have changed a lot after my husband died.”
Many women widowed by the earthquake are facing similar problems, with their in-laws reluctant to part with property. Some face harassment in the absence of their husbands, or have even been evicted. But Maharjan says she is hopeful about her family’s future, and is willing to make any sacrifice necessary to ensure her sons are happy and successful.
She says: “A year ago, I never thought I would be able to get over the tragedy. But life goes on somehow, and I have to stay focused on taking care of my sons.”
Waiting in the rain, Sahina Shrestha
Winter emergency for quake survivors, Kunda Dixit
Saparu, Sonia Awale