14-20 August 2015 #771

2,000 widows

Women who lost their husbands in the earthquake suffer bereavement and a lonely struggle for survival
Rojita Adhikari in BHAKTAPUR

DOUBLE SUFFERING: After dreaming at night that her husband is still alive and her house is intact, Nani Maiya Prajapati is reminded every morning that both are gone. She also lost her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren in this ruin of her home in Sankhu.

Every morning when Nani Maiya Prajapati, 47, gets up, she peers across the bed to check if her husband is there and over the field to see if her home is still standing, just as in her dreams. They aren’t there.

Nani Maiya’s life is never going back to what it was before 25 April. She is reminded every morning of the horror of that Saturday just before noon in Sankhu when buildings caved in with a frightful roar and her husband, daughter and son-in-law, two grandchildren and mother-in-law were buried under her house After a night of forgetting, she is reminded every morning of her loss. Time has not healed, the wounds in her soul are as raw as ever.

Nani Maiya was serving food to her daughter, son-in-law and their two children when the building started shaking violently. She shouted “let’s go” and ran out of the house. The others couldn’t make it in time and were crushed.

“I am the only survivor in the family. I lost everyone. I wish I had died too,” sobs Nani Maiya, dressed in mourning white.

The earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people with 55 per cent of them female. Nepal Police estimates that up to 2,000 women lost their husbands, and there are another 50,000 single women whose houses collapsed. For the widows and single mothers, the struggle for survival after the earthquake has been doubly difficult because they are alone to rebuild and take care of families.

In patriarchal rural Nepal, it is mostly the men who earned, made important financial and other decisions in the household. They were the ones who did all the paperwork in the VDCs. The widows and single women now have to learn to do all this by themselves, as they try to claim the Rs 15,000 emergency relief and apply for reconstruction grants.

Nani Maiya, who farmed while her husband worked as a labourer, cannot read or write. Her citizenship papers and all land registration documents are buried in the ruin, and she has been living in a small shed made of two corrugated zinc sheets provided by an anonymous donor. She looks dazed.

In nearby Dadhikot, 33-year-old Sunita Chitrakar also lost her husband who was a carpenter, and is now struggling to take care of her two children.

Three months after the earthquake, even though she lives close to the capital, Sunita has not received any money or roofing material and is still living in a fraying tent with her children. Others with men in the families have built temporary shelters from roofing material provided by the government, and they have got their Rs 15,000.

Sunita Chitrakar has been living with her two sons under a tent for the past three months. She doesn’t know how to get roofing material and her Rs 15,000 emergency help.

“No one told me where to go, how to get the relief material,” says Sunita. “During storms, I have to hold on to the flaps so the tent won’t blow away. We need Rs 12,000 a month to survive, and there is now no money for food, to pay for school fees.”

Purna Laxmi Khadgi, was married off when she was 19 and had been living with her husband for 11 years in Bhaktapur. Her husband and their one-and-half year old son were killed. She and her daughter survived.

“My husband and son were sleeping inside the house that Saturday,” Purna Laxmi recalls, “I survived because I was washing clothes outside. The building collapsed and it buried my husband and son. I miss them both terribly, I remember my son most at his feeding time.”

Purna Laxmi Khadgi showing a wedding photograph with her pharmacist husband who was killed with her one-and-a-half year old son when their home in Bhaktapur collapsed.

Purna Laxmi has a degree in pharmacy and her husband had a drug store. They were relatively well off, but the loss of her husband has left Purna Laxmi without support. She has been living for over three months in a temporary shed built by her brother-in-law. “I have to survive for the sake of my daughter,” she says.

Subhadra Marikhun also lost her husband and her house is gone. She cannot sleep because she is worried that she will not have enough money for her son’s school. “My husband loved me so much he didn’t want me to get a job, how can I live without him now?” says Subhadra.

Subhadra Marikhun shows newspaper cutouts of her husband's condolence announcement.

For the nearly 3 million people directly affected by the earthquake, life is a struggle but is slowly returning to normal. But for the 2,000 widows like Nani Maiya Prajapati, Purna Laxmi Khadgi, Sunita Chitrakar and Subhadra Marikhun, there is another dimension of loss. They need long-term help.

Special need

Women’s groups and relief volunteers say widows and single mothers need special attention in post-earthquake rehabilitation because of the loss of breadwinner and the stigma of widowhood in patriarchal Nepali society. They will be needing financial and psycho-social support well into the future.

“Single women and widows will need a separate mechanism for support to rebuild homes and livelihoods,” says Lili Thapa of the Women for Human Right, Single Women Group. Thapa wants a Rs 50 million special fund for single mothers and widows and a special relief structure to reach them.

When we put that to Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare Nilam KC, she admitted such a program had not been planned yet. But she added: “We have looked at trafficking and sexual violence in shelters, but I will keep the agenda of widows and single mothers in the meeting of the council of ministers.”

Read also:

Mothers and babies, Om Astha Rai

Sheltering women, Sahina Shrestha

Quakes and women