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Meet the Nepalese women leading their communities in climate change emergencies

Words by Tess Becker

Nepal is among the top 10 countries most affected by climate disasters. Nepalese people are on the frontline of the climate change crisis, losing their homes, farms, and sometimes their loved ones due to flooding, landslides, drought, and waterborne diseases, which are now a frequent occurrence. Most of these disasters occur during the monsoon season where increasingly severe and erratic rainfall gives rise to extreme weather events.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to the impact of these disasters. Living in temporary camps after an evacuation and relying on emergency relief leaves women at risk of violence and exploitation. Provisions for periods, pregnancy, or breastfeeding are all too easily forgotten when aid is distributed. Caring responsibilities often fall on women, which can intensify when they and their loved ones have experienced injury or trauma. In the longer term, when families lose their source of income, increased financial pressure in households often leads to an increase in violence against women and increased child marriage.

In October 2021, over 100 people died, thousands of homes were destroyed, and 10,000 hectares of paddy fields were damaged in floods caused by heavy rainfall in Bardiya District. This area of southwestern Nepal, located along the Karnali River, faces almost annual floods during the monsoon season, which have increased in recent years, in part, because of climate change.

Women in Nepal are at the frontline of disaster preparedness and response, which is key to making sure that women’s rights are protected, and their specific needs are met. Women often have strong local knowledge and, crucially, links with other people in the area, which makes them well-placed to lead preparations for increasingly frequent disasters. First responders are often women, who bring vital skills, resources, and experience in emergencies. They also play a pivotal role in the care and emotional rebuilding of communities in the aftermath of a crisis.

Together with women and girls in the Bardiya District, ActionAid Nepal has, for a decade, supported communities to prepare for, build resilience against and respond to flooding and other crises. These initiatives are led by grassroots youth and community groups who map risks, disseminate key information, make and distribute life jackets, and run drills for flood, fire, and earthquake evacuations. They support people to build income-generating businesses that are resilient to extreme weather, and access cash and seeds when their homes or farms are damaged. These groups include the Yuwar Bakheri youth hub, and 12 Community Disaster Management Committees, nine of which are chaired by women.

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Antila, 24, is a member of the Yuwar Bakheri youth hub, a grassroots group that has been taking the lead on community planning and preparation for climate-related emergencies such as flooding, fires, and earthquakes. They have been taking action through door-to-door information sharing, risk reduction, and mapping and evacuation drills. 

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Pramila, 19, attended the Yuwar Bakheri youth hub’s recent mock evacuation drill, she said, “This mock drill showed us how to respond to flooding. Through drama, we learned what measures to take during floods and how to help vulnerable groups of people, such as older people and children. It also taught us about using life jackets and how to use the siren to alert people.”

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The Yuwar Bakheri youth hub also develops lifesaving materials such as life jackets with rice bags and water bottles. These are distributed to families when flooding occurs. Pramila, a member of the hub, said young people are capable and courageous and are therefore key to disaster response. She said, “Young people can be helpful during disasters as they are often physically more energetic. For example, a young person who knows how to swim can help people during a flood by swimming.”

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Sita Chaudhary, 41, is standing beside a dam built in the Karnali River to protect farmland from flooding. Sita Chairs a Community Disaster Management Committee in the Bardiya District which teaches people how to prepare for and build resilience against flooding and other unpredictable climatic events. Sita believes women are best placed to safeguard their families and lead disaster preparations in their community. She said, “We can't stop disasters such as floods from happening, but we can work together to protect our community.”

Sita practices raising the alarm using the red hand siren. She said, “In the past, it was really difficult to alert people to an incoming flood. People weren't informed, so when an area suddenly flooded, it would be chaos, with people rushing to protect their children, their belongings, and their food supplies at the same time… Today, after we have been notified about flood risk, I call the village guard… I then go to ring the siren, even if it’s in the middle of the night, and the guard goes door to door to people’s homes to inform them.”

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Sita and the Community Disaster Management Committee meet to organize disaster response. Sita explains, “We have a task force that is responsible for the early warning system for flooding, another for first aid, a larger task force of seven people that is responsible for search and rescue, and a task force that focuses on protecting women's health during disasters. These subgroups make it easier for us to organize our work.”

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Sita and the Community Disaster Management Committees use ActionAid funding to prepare for floods, she said, “ActionAid has supported places that are affected by flooding by building small bridges and pipelines – especially along the roads which have previously been submerged, making it difficult to travel. The charity also supported us by providing life jackets.”

Biruni, 45, is weighing her crop of potatoes using a scale. She is a freed bonded laborer and chair of Kamaiya Mahila Jagaran Samaj (KMJS), an organization working to resettle and support people who were previously bonded laborers, forced to work in order to repay a debt. Today, Biruni and other KMJS women are helping their communities to prepare for flooding. She said, “The yearly flood water used to wash mud over our houses. Our house was damaged every year. Our farm crops would also be damaged. Our rice crops would be lost. The floods would come as soon as we planted seeds. As floods often come twice or three times in a row, we never have enough food.”

Biruni is pictured farming her maize crop. She said, “We know we cannot stop any kind of disaster from coming, but we can lessen its impact...We have a siren that we sound to warn people about flooding. If we ring the siren once, it tells everyone a flood is coming. If we ring the siren a second time, it tells people that they must prepare for the flood, store their belongings somewhere safe and move to a safe place. If we ring it a third time, it tells people we must run as the flood has arrived.”

She believes women have a key role to play in disaster response, “When women are menstruating, another woman can understand her needs better. Women can understand the needs of pregnant women and new mothers and talk to them more openly. It is easier for women to raise their issues in front of other women than with men."

Prasadi, 36, is meeting with other members of the Shree Sanskriti Women Farmers’ Cooperative. She and her family have witnessed many floods through the years and have experienced many life-threatening situations. “When we used to run from the water, the force of it would push us. We could not even help ourselves; some of us would climb into boats to get to safe places. There would be so many people, and the boats could not take everyone to a safer place. We ran to save ourselves even though the water swept us away.” 

She and her peers in the Cooperative have formed savings groups, where each member deposits into a savings pot, which is used to loan to women who need additional support when disaster strikes. 

Members of the Shree Sanskriti Women Farmers' Cooperative have learned to apply new techniques to farming to lessen the impact the frequent floods have on their crops. Prasadi said, "We were taught to lift our barriers a little higher and to do tunnel farming. And if we are sowing seeds close to the flooding season, we need to plant them a little higher and bury them properly.”

Today, Prasadi believes her engagement with women in her community has made her stronger. The solidarity of women, she says, has helped her to speak her mind in the past few years. She said, “The training we have received has made farming easier and given us food security. Farming vegetables is now fruitful. We get good returns. We can earn enough on a day-to-day basis. We make a reasonable profit. There is good money flow.” 

ActionAid’s Arise Fund is the first ever global fund directly supporting women-led emergency response and preparedness work, like the work of Antila, Pramila, Sita, Biruni and Prasadi in Nepal. Find out more: Support ActionAid’s Arise Fund | ActionAid UK 

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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