There’s a crisp cheerfulness in the way Sushila Tamang talks about her progression from construction labourer to trained mason, helping to rebuild earthquake-battered homes in her little town of Sankhu some 25 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu. But it’s clear that overcoming traditional attitudes about gender roles has been as tough as any of the challenges of the work itself.
“There are a few people in the community who have been supportive. At first many said a woman wasn’t suited to building the pillars of a house,” says Sushila during a break from her work on a building site in one of Sankhu’s narrow streets.
Around five per cent of the 200 masons trained by the Nepal Red Cross in the Kathmandu area are female. The proportion varies from district to district among the 4,000 Red Cross-trained masons nationwide, who will play a crucial role in rebuilding quake-resistant homes following last April’s 7.8-magnitude tremblor. But Nepal Red Cross staff are making proactive efforts to increase the number of women in the programme.
“People’s attitudes are changing. They need to change, particularly given the fact that so many of Nepal’s young men are working abroad,” says Sagun Shrestha, Programme Coordinator at the Kathmandu chapter of the Red Cross.
Old prejudices remain
But old prejudices remain. “I’m still struggling to convince people,” says 27-year-old Sushila, a glistening of emotion in her eyes hinting at the difficulty of the path she is walking.
She started working several years ago as a labourer on construction sites - a common job for women in Nepal - but was persuaded to train as a mason by her contractor.
Sushila can earn 600 Nepali Rupees (5.6 US Dollars; or 5 Euros) per day in this more qualified and, for a woman, more unusual role. When she started working in construction, she made only NPR 250 (2.34 USD or 2.1 Euros)
Yet even the increased wage isn’t enough to be able to save any cash, after taking care of her parents and two brothers.
The family is still living in a temporary house built out of bamboo, after having initially sheltered following the earthquake in a plastic tunnel for growing tomatoes.
While Sushila and her work-mates are well advanced with the walls of the house they are rebuilding, thousands of families throughout the worst-affected areas are still at various different stages of the recovery process.
Many have started to draw the first NPR 50,000 (468 USD; 417 Euros) tranche of cash grants being distributed both by the Nepal Red Cross Society and the government, which they will be able to use for the foundations.
They will receive two further instalments once the work has been completed in compliance with government earthquake resistance guidelines, making a total of 300,000 NPR (2,810 USD; 2,503 Euros).
Focus on clearing debris
But for many households, particularly those headed by single females, such as 46-year-old widow, Sitha Neupane the focus is still on clearing away the debris of their shattered homes and salvaging whatever materials they can to help rebuild new houses.
“I was outside looking after the maize crop when the earthquake happened. I could only cry as I watched my house collapse from a distance,” says Sitha.
She is standing beside a neat pile of corrugated iron sheeting and wood, salvaged from her home.
Despite having two sons to help her, the task of clearing up was made easier thanks to a Cash for Work programme in which neighbours have worked together to clear away the ruins of each house in the community in exchange for NPR 600 cash per day.
“We didn’t have had the manpower to do it on our own”, says Sitha. The cash has come in useful to buy rice and clothes and pay off her sons’ education loans.
The programme has served an important social and economic purpose. Many people are keen to clear the debris before the major Dashain holiday in October.
“We can see that Cash for Work support is very useful in post-disaster settings”, says Nepal Red Cross Secretary General, Dev Ratna Dhakwa. “It is giving people a much-needed boost as the country knuckles down to the task of beginning the rebuilding process.”
The programme to train local masons is being supported by the British Red Cross with funding from UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee.