Women and girls became central in our pandemic work
Right after the declaration of COVD-19 restrictions and lockdowns, we understood that child marriage would become a pertinent issue in our working areas, writes Program Development Coordinator Deepika Naidu.
Intensifying gender-based violence (GBV), more domestic work, drop-outs from school, and increasing numbers of child marriage. The covid-19 pandemic hit us all hard, but the consequences of school closures and national lockdowns were especially serious for Nepalese girls and women.
Right after the declaration of COVD-19 restrictions and lockdowns, we understood that child marriage would become a pertinent issue in our working areas. That’s why we wanted to focus on child safeguarding and make it one of our first priorities. We started implementing our activities which included child clubs in school, community dialogues and even educational street drama performances.
We also erected billboards with a message on child marriage and its negative effects on children’s physical, mental, social well-being and legal provisions against child marriage. It was encouraging to see that the billboards were well recognized by the community and local government officials.
In addition to child safeguarding, the pandemic forced us to respond to the crisis in many ways. Our food distributions addressed the immediate needs of the most marginalized groups, especially pregnant and lactating women, and households who had a person with a disability.
As in many other countries, there were more reported cases of gender-based violence in Nepal during the lockdown. We did our best to tackle the problem with our family dialogues, media awareness campaigns and sessions on gender inequality with mixed groups engaging men, boys, women and girls of communities. Some of the cooperatives (supported by FCA) formulated advocacy plans of action including activities to reduce child marriage and addressing GBV, amongst others. These were submitted to the respective local governments.
In consideration of the increasing violence and abuse against women and girls in the quarantine centres, FCA partners advocated for women-friendly spaces with local governments. Our efforts bore fruit: due to this collective voice of Civil Society Organisations, local governments initiated women-friendly spaces in the targeted quarantine centres.
I’m hopeful because our constitution is very progressive and the policies and acts addressing child marriage and violence against women and girls are promising. The presence of the local units of the government at the community level aims to create an enabling environment for women and girls to thrive.
As I am writing this, the Covid-19 pandemic is dominating the news and daily politics for the second year running. In fact, this topic has overshadowed other news to such an extent that it is hard to remember what went on in the world before Covid-19 testing, vaccines and coronavirus variants. Climate change, protracted conflicts, swarms of locusts destroying crops – does any of that ring a bell?
The work carried out by Finn Church Aid focuses on providing education, securing livelihoods and building peace. The objective of long-term development cooperation is to help entire communities become stable and self-sufficient.
We also respond to more urgent needs. After a massive explosion in the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut in August 2020, we delivered emergency assistance to those affected. When Covid-19 stopped trade and food deliveries at state borders in several parts of the world, we continued to provide emergency food assistance.
Some of the areas where we promote development cooperation, humanitarian assistance and peace do naturally overlap, just as global crises are inextricably intertwined. Many of our programme countries faced profound challenges even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Changes in climate and protracted conflicts have caused food crises, health crises and displacement of millions of people.
In South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, devastating floods have left two thirds of the country’s 11 million inhabitants in need of some form of humanitarian assistance as they are suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition.
Syria also has a disastrous decade of suffering behind it. This conflict-ridden country has spiralled into an economic crisis that, for Syrian people, translates into a shortage of food and lost income opportunities. An entire generation of children has gone to school in emergency conditions.
The global pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses of many countries. In Nepal, more than 25 per cent of the country’s GDP has in recent years consisted of remittances by Nepalese working abroad. With the pandemic forcing migrant workers to return home, families have struggled for more than a year, trying to cope without an adequate income to guarantee a decent living.
But the pandemic has not brought all progress to a halt, even if we sometimes feel like it. In a number of projects, the situation has forced us to take a big leap forward in technology. For instance, in Kenya we distributed radios to enable women to participate in peace dialogues. Our objective in such projects was to make communities better equipped to resolve conflicts involving natural resources.
Without a doubt, we will face more challenges in the future. Our climate is becoming increasingly harsh, and in these changing conditions, it is likely that more epidemics will circulate in the population. Natural disasters will force people to leave their homes in growing numbers. According to forecasts, a high population growth rate in Africa will result in massive migration within the continent.
But the good news is that resilient societies are able to take better precautions and prepare for disasters. In time, the Covid-19 crisis will pass, and this is when Finn Church Aid’s efforts to improve education, support livelihoods and forge peace will bear fruit and produce even more tangible results. Those who have participated in our projects have been building a stronger foundation for their lives, enabling them to pursue a brighter future.
Ulriikka Myöhänen, Communications Specialist.
This text twas originally published in our Annual Report 2020 that came out recently. Would you like to know more about what was done?
FCA takes a step towards localisation by forming a Global Leadership Team
FCA’s Board of Directors has appointed three representatives of FCA’s programme countries to its newly formed Global Leadership Team (GLT) in June. The GLT is part of FCA’s new organisational structure that came into force on April 1, 2021, and the term of the representatives is 2+1 years.
Country Director of South Sudan Mr Berhanu Haile, Country Director of Nepal Ms Sofia Olsson, and Country Director of Uganda, Mr Wycliffe Nsheka will be starting in their new roles in August. Permanent member of the Global Leadership team are Executive Director Jouni Hemberg and Deputy Executive Director Tomi Järvinen.
The GLT will have a significant role in strategic decision-making in FCA’s new organisational structure that aims to serve better the people FCA works with and emphasise accountability. Having a multi-skilled Global Leadership Team with diverse field experiences will improve FCA’s work, says Wycliffe Nsheka.
“Development cooperation has taken a major shift whereby the focus now is to promote mutual learning. I have been in the sector for 20 years, and there has been talk of localisation for a long time, but there is still work to be done in bringing it to practise”, Nsheka continues.
The new GLT will be committed to making localisation a reality and supporting the Global South to strengthen ownership and sustainability. Berhanu Haile says that the new management model is a significant step towards heeding local knowledge and experience to inform strategic decision-making.
“This is a significant step towards localisation while at the same time transforming FCA to be a global organisation that embraces views from North and South,” says Haile.
“The approach will ensure that we strategically respond to the rights and needs of the marginalised people with whom we work,” says Sofia Olsson.
The Covid-19 outbreak in Nepal is escalating quickly. From reporting around a hundred cases per day a month ago, Nepal currently registers a devastating number of 9,300 daily cases. The rate of positive tests is now the world’s highest – around 49 per cent of all conducted test are positive.
Nepal has a fragile health system and already experiences a lack of hospital beds, oxygen supplies and ventilators. The vaccine rollout has stopped, while the number of new infections is rising fast. Finn Church Aid (FCA) is extremely concerned about the situation, and its office in Nepal closely monitors developments while considering different ways to respond.
FCA Nepal works with the country’s most vulnerable communities and is looking for ways to continue its support amid the health crises, says Country Director Sofia Olsson.
“The situation is incredibly difficult right now. Hospitals have been completely full and overwhelmed for the past ten days, and it is estimated that we have less than 10 per cent of the projected need for ICUs, ventilators and oxygen supplies. The death rate is increasing dramatically due to the lacking resources”, she says.
Olsson says that Nepal urgently needs support from the international community.
“All in-country development partners are already working on this, but what is also essential right now is for the outside world to open its eyes to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Nepal and look beyond the Covid crisis in India. The situation in India is awful, but as Nepal has much less resources and capacities than our big neighbour, we are bound to see a significantly worse development in Nepal unless aid starts flowing in now”, Olsson says.
FCA has worked in Nepal for several years and remains, with its local partners, committed to joint efforts in addressing the humanitarian consequences and the socio-economic impact of the alarming virus outbreak.
”The duty of the one leading the way is to tell others what the road is like and what is waiting ahead, as well as to warn others of danger. That’s the duty of a parent. To lead the way,” says farmer Khincha Lal Pahari. He and his immediate and extended family live in the village of Bakhfer in Sindhuli District in rural Nepal.
The house is surrounded by fields used for growing potatoes and rice. In the middle of the field, Khincha has six farming tunnels, a type of greenhouse that gives the plants a longer growing season. He uses them to grow cucumbers and tomatoes. The ground floor of the house has a kiosk in which Khincha’s mother sells beverages and snacks.
The centuries-old tradition of bonded labour was ended in Nepal over ten years ago. The end of debt bondage left many families with nothing, meaning no land of their own, no education, and no means of subsistence. FCA supports livelihood projects in ex-bonded labor communities.
Hot and dry. The temperature is over 40 degrees Celsius, and the soil has turned yellow. In western Nepal, close to the Indian border, conditions are harsh in the late spring. Before the monsoon, the earth is dry and water is in short supply. The weather has always been hot this time of year, but climate change has made the arrival of the rains hard to predict.
”When we moved here, there was nothing,” says Sushila Chaudhari. Now, the village is surrounded by fields, and the other edge is used for raising pigs. By selling vegetables, the family has earned enough to become self-sufficient. Sushila moved to the village 12 years ago when she got married. Since then, the region has developed enormously. Nowadays, it is even possible to dream.
”I want to expand my cultivation and make it possible for my children to continue their studies,” she says.
Sushila Chaudhari lives in the community of ex-bonded labour.
The villages of Kailali district are home to several communities of former bonded labourers. The drought is not the only challenge standing in the way of their livelihood – many are still living without land or birth certificate. Some of the former bonded labourers have been able to register a plot of land to their name and make a living, for example, by farming, raising chicken, or running small-scale businesses.
33-year-old Gita Chaudhari lives in Kailari with her husband and two children. Gita moved to the village when she got married 14 years ago. Her son, 14, and daughter, 10, go to school. The family earns a living by raising chicken and growing crops on rented land. Gita spent her childhood helping her parents, who lived in debt bondage, with household chores.
Nepal has a long history of various forms of bonded labour. The Haliya labour system was banned in 2008 and the Kamaiya system in 2000; in both systems, labour meant hard agricultural labour for the landlord. A feature typical of the debt was that it accumulated interest and, in practical terms, was often impossible to pay back. The debt was even inherited by the children of the family, forcing the entire family into bondage. For children, this meant dropping out of school or going without education altogether.
Basanti Chaudari’s tea shop sells a variety of foods such as samosas, noodles, and biscuits. The shop, founded five months earlier, is off to a good start. A project supported by Finn Church Aid has provided Basanti with education regarding maintaining the shop, as well as a startup grant to help her get started.
Basanti does practically everything in the shop herself.
”Sometimes it’s hard to manage to prepare all the food. At times, the children help me, and for example, my daughters help out by wiping the tables and so on.”
Shanti Chaudhary is helping her sister-in-law.
Today, offering additional assistance as a waitress is the wife of her brother-in-law Shanti Chaudhary, whose husband works in India. Kailali is dry and sparsely populated, and livelihood opportunities are poor. The neighbouring countries offer more jobs, and opportunities such as factory work in India drive many men to look for employment abroad.
The shop is off to a good start, and Basanti hopes to be able to save money and expand her business in the future. In addition to villagers, her customers include passers-by.
”I didn’t go to school, and because of that, I didn’t use to have work. Now I do, and I even make money.”
Because Basanti herself was unable to go to school, it is important for her to offer her children a better starting point. She uses the profits from her shop towards the education of her twin daughters, 7, and her son, 10.
Finn Church Aid’s partner organisation Freed Kamaiya Women Development Forum supports the communities and women groups of the region in various ways. Saving cooperatives allow the women of the region to grow their livelihood, for example by getting loans to buy or rent a bigger plot of land. The women of Janchetana Saving and Credit Cooperative say that cooperation makes them happy. During their meetings, the office of the cooperative is always full, and agreements are reached together.
”At first, making rules wasn’t easy. People had lots of conflicting views, but by talking things through together, we reached an understanding”, they say.
Now, the successful group has been operating for five years. Dreams for the future include getting premises of their own instead of rented space; in addition, the group hopes to turn their operation into a real bank.
Most of the income is from farming. Irrigation is a challenge, while another problem is how to get the vegetables produced to the market; at present, some of the crops go to waste.
Bonded labourers had no freedom to move or to make decisions regarding how to spend their time. All the work decreed by the landlord had to be done, and the landlord got all the profits. When the centuries-old tradition of bonded labour was broken, the labourers were free.
Until 2001, 90-year-old Champi Chaudhari lived as a Kamaiya, or in bonded servitude.
Up until 2001, Champi Chaudhari lived in bonded servitude.
”We were treated like animals,” she says.
All her time was spent working for her landlord, and during what little time was left over, she had to take care of her own family. She had nothing left for herself.
”I’m doing really well now. I no longer have to work, and we have all the amenities here,” she says.
The village community has began farming with success, and agricultural work keeps the parents of the families occupied. Champi Chaudhari no longer needs to work. As the village elder, she now gets to enjoy her life.
Text: Noora Pohjanheimo
Translation: Leena Vuolteenaho
Photos: Tatu Blomqvist
After her divorce, relatives refused to help. Now Kamu Sunar is the one people come to for help and advice.
A little boy comes to Kamu Sunar’s shop. He chooses a chocolate bar and hands over the money. He has already turned to leave when Sunar reminds him to take the change with him.
Kamu Sunar’s shop takes up one room in a two-storey stone building on the narrow main street of the village of Bhardeu. The shop sells a variety of items from soap and bracelets to shoes and petrol. The small village of Bhardeu is located in a verdant valley right in the middle of Nepal.
Sunar is a Dalit, or an outcaste, as well as an entrepreneur and a single mother. Now, she is also a municipal councillor on the Nepalese rural municipal council Gaupalika, meaning she gets to participate in local decision-making.
For several years, a women’s cooperative supported by the Finn Church Aid volunteer network Women’s Bank has operated in Sunar’s home village. The women who belong to it have received education and support for e.g. saving and agriculture as well as starting their own small businesses. The members of the cooperative have improved their financial and social position, but according to the women, equally important has been an improvement in self-esteem, team spirit within the group, and support from others.
And when a municipal election was held in Nepal, the women of Bhardeu decided to join forces. They voted for Kamu Sunar, a respected member of the group who had a slightly better chance of being elected, thanks to a Dalit quota. When she was elected, it was a victory for all of them.
In politics, Sunar wants to promote the financial and mental empowerment of women. In Nepal, the situation of women is still poor, and not everyone thinks rights such as ownership rights and financial power of decision belong to women just like they do to men.
Went to school in secret, married young
Remote Bhardeu has not always been home for Kamu Sunar. Her childhood was spent in the capital Kathmandu where her parents had a goldsmith shop. Her childhood as the eldest daughter of a family with five children was a happy one.
”I went to school for five years. After that, my parents wanted me to help my mother at home and my father at the shop. Even as a child, I was strong-willed. I was very interested in mathematics. I tried continuing to go to school in secret, but when my parents found out, I got a beating, and I had to drop out of school.”
Kamu Sunar sighs. Now comes the most painful part of her story.
A young man visited the goldsmith shop.
”I was 15 years old when we met, and he was six years older than me. We married for love.”
A couple of decades ago, love matches were much less common in Nepal than they are today. The newlyweds moved to the groom’s home village of Bhardeu. They were happy together for ten years.
”Then he found someone else. I don’t want to talk about it any more than this. He betrayed me. I don’t want to think about him,” says Sunar.
”No, I definitely never intend to marry again, because I don’t want that to happen to me again.”
When her husband left her, Sunar and her young children, a girl and a boy, were left destitute. The family of the husband did not want to help them.
”My children gave me courage. I didn’t want them to suffer.”
”Mom is kind-hearted and funny”
Being a member of the women’s cooperative helped Sunar rearrange her life. Little by little, Sunar acquired both skills and capital. She got a loan of 15,000 Nepalese rupees (110 euros) to start her own shop. Having her own shop had been a lifelong dream.
The shop was a success. Both of her children got the chance to stay in school for as long as they would like.
We close the shop for a while and go see Kamu Sunar’s construction site. She is about to fulfil another dream, a home of her own. Her time living in her ex-husband’s brother’s house is coming to an end. The house is not even safe, because it was damaged in the powerful earthquakes of 2015.
Sunar’s small plot of land is within walking distance of the shop in this beautiful valley in which the village is located. Houses are scattered few and far between in the valley, surrounded by meadows and terraced maize and mustard fields. In this country known for its snowy peaks, the tall green hills surrounding the valley cannot be called mountains.
At the plot, Sunar’s daughter and a friend are working in the heat of the sun, crushing rocks. You can also buy crushed rock, but it is cheaper to make your own.
Soon there will be a small house on the plot that belongs to no one but Sunar. It feels wonderful.
Tomorrow, 14-year-old daughter Amrita can leave crushing rocks behind and gets to go to school, as the school year starts.
”Amrita is stronger than I am. She talks a lot and has lots of suggestions,” says Sunar.
Amrita is interested in a career as a volleyball player. ”She gets to choose herself,” Sunar assures us. Her 18-year-old son Amit works in a goldsmith shop in Kathmandu, but often visits his mother and sister.
”Mom is kind-hearted and funny. And a little strict. Mom used to be very quiet, but not anymore. I’m really pround of her being on the council,” says Amrita.
Work on behalf of women
Outcaste people still face many kinds of discrimination in Nepal.
”I’ve suffered a lot because I’m outcaste. But I have learned a lot as well. I’m here now because I have had so much support,” says Sunar.
According to Sunar, all members of the council are like one big family.
”We dine together and help each other. There is no discrimination there.”
Sunar knows from experience exactly what kind of skills a woman needs in order to improve her situation in society. She is now in a position to give advice and help others.
Being on the council only pays a small fee, and the 460 municipal councils of an impoverished country do not have a great deal of funds to hand out for local development. 18 percent of the funds are especially reserved for supporting women. This is better than nothing at all.
”My mind used to be empty. Now I have lots of knowledge, skills and ideas,” describes Sunar.
Savitri Devi Mandal welcomes us into her home. We sit in a small courtyard surrounded by rooms. Mandal’s sari is vibrantly colourful. Her silver jewellery, part of the local culture, speak of her position as a married woman.
”I am very happy now, especially when working in our restaurant,” she says.
Mandal, 39, lives with her husband, her mother-in-law and her four children in the village of Gonarpura in the Terai region in southeast Nepal. In recent years, the life of the family has taken a major turn for the better.
Life in Gonarpura today is much the same as it has been for hundreds of years. The beautiful houses by the banks of the river are made of a mixture of clay and concrete. The corners of the houses are soft and round, their roofs are made of straw, and no cars would fit to drive on the narrow sand paths between the houses – not that anyone has a car here. Water comes from the well. Big haystacks in the field in front of the village provide food for the cows. Chicken and goats populate the yards.
The region is beautiful but poor. Terai is an underdeveloped region even on the scale of impoverished Nepal.
Savitri and Sankar are cooking, joined by son Saudi. Meat is not part of the restaurant’s menu, because it is too expensive.
Visibly proud, Mandal goes inside into one of the rooms for a gas cylinder and a small gas stove she got as entrepreneurial support that she drags out to show us. They helped her and her husband Sankar to start a ”restaurant.” They prepare and sell food at a small marketplace next to the village by a bridge crossing the river.
Something has changed in the village over the past few years – for the better. Finn Church Aid’s livelihood project has provided women with education and support for agriculture and small-scale entrepreneur activities, for example in the form of a cow or a sewing machine. New skills have brought wellbeing and decreased work migration to neighbouring country India.
”Forget about the dowry!”
”Now we can work together. My husband doesn’t have to leave home to look for work. We all have proper clothes. We are even able to put money away for saving. Our children are all in school, and we can afford to pay for school supplies and remedial education,” says Mandal, herself illiterate.
”Don’t save for the dowry yet, keep your daughter in school for as long as she wants to! It’s going to be long before she needs to marry,” advises Finn Church Aid’s project coordinator Arati Rayamajhi, when Mandal says her only concern is her daughter’s dowry. Daughter Laxmi is 13 years old.
Restaurant open every night
Savitri Devi and Sankar Mandal’s restaurant opens at four in the afternoon. 14-year-old son Chanchal transports the gas cylinder and stove to the marketplace with a push cart. Savitri and Sankar sit behind the stove, next to each other.
There are eggs on the table to make an omelette, with onions, tomatoes and chilli chopped as fillings.
They sit here every day until nine in the evening. ”However, I feel energised in the morning, because I don’t have to worry about something all the time anymore,” says Savitri Devi Mandal.
Bunu Rai, 20, from Nepal, is training in Automobile Mechanics. There are very few female workers in the automobile industry in Nepal. But this is about to change.
“I want to change the perception of the society and the people. Women can do this work, even though it has been perceived to be only for men,” Bunu Rai says.
Finn Church Aid’s local partner organisation UCEP Nepal’s Sano Thimi Technical School in Bhaktapur near the capital Kathmandu has started to offer non-traditional vocational education for young women.
Rai has been learning a lot at the school and enjoyed her studies very much.
“When I’ve been studying and working with men, one thing I have learned is courage. I do not feel any awkwardness, I’m very happy. We students help each other.”
”Our society is patriarchal. I want change! I want women to be treated equally and have an equal place in the society.”
Rai says that in the past there was discrimination between daughters and sons in Nepali families. Often boys went to school and girls stayed home doing housework.
However, Rai’s parents always treated her and her sister and brother equally.
“My father used to work as a school helper. Perhaps he learned his good thinking partly from the school.”
At the Sano Thimi Technical School there are students from around the country, many living at the school hostel. Underprivileged youths such as youths from dalit or ex-bonder labour groups and youths from low economic background can get a scholarship for their studies.
After graduating, Bunu Rai wants to find a job or open her own workshop. In Sano Thimi, the training is followed by support to job placement or self-employment.
Finn Church Aid (FCA) carried out an internal audit in the late autumn of 2017. Some deficiencies were detected in the Nepal Country Office.
The process has not affected the financing, quality of programme work or efficiency of the operations. FCA’s professional and committed staff in Nepal will continue to implement FCA’s strategic goals and the country programme with quality.
FCA has recently started new large projects in Nepal with UNICEF and the EU, among others. These projects and the other programme work will continue in a normal manner. FCA and the Asian Development Bank are also planning cooperation.
The Country Director and the Finance Officer have resigned on January 18, 2018. A new Country Director and Finance Manager will recruited to Nepal Country Office as soon as possible.
More information: Director of International Cooperation Marja Jörgensen marja.jorgensen(at)kua.fi