Nepal earthquake: the importance of dialogue with affected communities

Published: 25 April 2017 3:00 CET

A man in a woolly knitted cap stumbles and lurches his way through the audience seated on the ground and on to the makeshift stage; two women squabble as they try to fill their plastic bucket at an imaginary water tap.


The comedy may be a little bit stylised in this street drama in a village just outside Kathmandu, but the issues, such as drunkenness and lack of social engagement by the young, as well as caste discrimination, are very real.


“My son drinks and lounges around at home all day and I have tried everything, but to no avail,” says one woman in her sixties after the performance, which is one of a series organised by the local Red Cross chapter.


Opinions are mixed over whether discrimination and social problems, such as family disputes over land and alcohol abuse, have worsened since Nepal’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake two years ago.


“I myself come from a caste which faces widespread discrimination,” says Sabita Pariyar, one of the actresses in the street drama.


Dhurba Silwal Hem Bahadur Khadka, an elderly spectator from the Brahmin caste, which is ranked at the top of the hierarchy, holds a different view.


 “We have changed our attitudes over the years and there is less discrimination against lower caste people now.”


Street drama has been a traditional vehicle in Nepal for interacting with local communities on a range of important social issues, but the Red Cross is also using other platforms.


Usha Tamang is a local radio journalist in the town of Dolakha. She was on air when the earthquake struck and when she finally emerged from the studio, she witnessed a scene of total devastation. The experience was one factor which led her to offer her services as a Nepal Red Cross radio volunteer, gathering material for two weekly programmes which focus on the needs of earthquake survivors.


Among the issues on which she feels made a difference was a report about the fate of a community of 84 families in an extremely remote area, whose children were suffering from diarrhoea and cold-related symptoms.


“I was able to make their voices heard and at the same time Red Cross headquarters arranged an interview with a doctor, who was able to give advice on their situation and help them,” she says.


“For those we are working to help, getting information to them and listening to their voices is a vital part of our support. But the crucial thing is that by airing their issues, we then have a responsibility to do our best to address them,” says Nepal Red Cross’ Head of Earthquake Response Operations, Umesh Dhakal.


Other approaches taken by the Nepal Red Cross to maintain a dialogue with people affected by the earthquake include a telephone hotline and a network of feedback boxes in the areas where the Red Cross operates.


Shanti Bindukar, a widow who lives in the Kathmandu valley, put a complaint in one of the boxes box after not being included in the list of beneficiaries receiving Red Cross cash grants to support livelihoods activities.


 “After a few days, I received a call from the Red Cross; they had reviewed my case and had decided to include me in the list for the livelihoods grant. When I received the first instalment of ten thousand Nepalese Rupees (100 US Dollars), I bought a sewing machine, table and an iron, to set up my own sewing business,” says Shanti.


Others, such as carpenter Jhamka Bahadur Sarki, have called the Red Cross 1130 hotline number to clarify issues such as how to access the government’s shelter reconstruction grant.


“I spoke to one of the operators and found out that I needed to make sure my house was in line with the building regulations and had a toilet and solar power installed to be able to qualify for the full grant. I followed the advice from the hotline and now I’m waiting for the grant from the government. I am sure I will get it because I have done everything the way I should do - thanks to the Red Cross hotline,” Sarki says.


The Nepal Red Cross also uses its Facebook page and a regular newspaper question-and-answer column to broaden its reach with communities. As well as answering people’s queries directly, the Community Engagement team also pump out information via radio programmes which address the most frequently raised topics from the feedback boxes.


With the passage of time people’s information needs have changed. Advice on psychosocial support and information about earthquake risks - may gradually recede in importance. But with thousands still at work on rebuilding their homes, the need to understand what help is available to them from humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross is likely to continue for some time.