Quake That Shook the Earth Now Shaking Nepal’s Social Fabric
May 13, 2015
Another powerful earthquake struck Nepal on Tuesday, collapsing hillsides and already-damaged buildings and sending panicked citizens once again running into the streets. The 7.3 magnitude quake was followed by several aftershocks, including one of magnitude 5.6 and another of 6.3.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake of April 25 had already left much of Nepal completely devastated. On May 4, the government reported that 7,365 people had died and 14,355 people had been injured. Later reports have numbered the dead at over 8,000. Physical destruction has been enormous, with the UN reporting 288,798 houses totally destroyed and 254,112 partially damaged as of May 11. The numbers are sure to continue to climb.
The large-scale physical damage and social disruption caused by the earthquake have exposed the affected communities to a series of adverse conditions that increase their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, all assistance focused – as it should have – on emergency relief. However, as we look back, nearly three weeks after the initial disaster, and review the collective experiences of NGOs, development partners, local administrations, and individuals, the unfolding narrative exposes some serious gaps in post-disaster rescue and relief work. It highlights the vulnerability and marginalization that people are facing based on gender, age, and economic status, and reveals the inequitable distribution of rescue, relief, and rehabilitation efforts.
Some of the worst-affected districts, including Sindhupalchok, Kavre, Dhading, and Gorkah, are primary sources of labor migration. The majority of working-age males in these districts are out of the country, and the majority of households are either headed by women or include only the elderly and the very young. The absence of a sizeable proportion of the male population in these districts has had serious implications for post-disaster rescue and relief work. Households made up of women or the elderly were less equipped to help rescue other family members who were injured or buried when their houses collapsed. There are heart-wrenching accounts from the field, such as the case of a mother who sat for three days outside her collapsed house, listening to the dwindling cries of her young son buried in the rubble, unable to pull him out as he slowly died. Even days after the disaster, as rescue and relief trickled in, the elderly, single women, and young mothers and other women with no adult male family members had the least access to relief materials. The elderly are often unable to build temporary shelters, even when supplies are provided, and they consequently remain exposed to hazards like post-earthquake landslides, rains, and disease.
A UN Flash Appeal estimates that, among the population most in need of relief, approximately 126,000 are pregnant women, 21,000 of whom will need obstetric care in the coming three months. Some 40,000 women are at immediate risk of gender-based violence. One of our partners reported a case of attempted sexual abuse of a female survivor by a radiologist during a post-trauma examination in a health camp. Single women face an especially high risk of abuse and exploitation after the disaster. According to Women for Human Rights, an organization working with single women, in just four of the affected districts – Dhading, Kavre, Nuwakot and Gorkha – some 21,000 single women have lost their homes and property, and in some cases their children and other family members. The exodus of people to safer areas is putting women and girls at greater risk. One NGO reported that a woman was raped by a bus conductor as she was attempting to leave for a safer district.
The inequitable distribution of rescue and relief resources has been further exacerbated by the absence of effective disaster management systems and the collapse of local governance bodies in most affected districts. The impact of this collapse on the lives of people as they struggle to survive is significant. First-hand accounts of the quake’s immediate aftermath from local organizations indicate that, in districts like Sindhupalchok, the complete absence of any state presence made it impossible to mount rescue and relief operations in villages lacking infrastructure and access roads and inhabited by the poorest citizens.
The fact that relief is not being distributed equitably increases the vulnerability to abuse of women, children, and the elderly. Two weeks into the response to the earthquake, as relief efforts begin to scale up and focus on the longer term, the absence of a coherent strategy from the government to ensure equitable distribution of resources amongst the affected population, and to safeguard groups with specific vulnerabilities related to gender, age, caste, and class, is creating obvious social tensions in the affected communities and may pose a serious threat to social stability.
Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
A longer version of this article appears in The Weekly Wonk, New America’s digital magazine.
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