To control the spread of COVID-19, Nepal went into strict lockdown on March 24, only partially lifted on June 14. Whilst the virus spread was curtailed during this time, it is now rising; by the beginning of July official figures showed over 16,000 people had tested positive with 35 deaths. The trend continues upwards, and over 350,000 persons are now in quarantine. What is the impact for women in Nepal?
Whilst all over the world, men seem more likely than women to succumb to COVID-19, there is also growing evidence that many of the negative impacts of lockdown are felt more strongly by women than by men – and by poorer members of society. As in other countries, confinement to the home, under stressful conditions for everyone, has brought an increase in gender-based violence. According to the UNFPA, 48% of women in Nepal have experienced violence in their lifetime although 61% of them have never spoken of it to others. It is therefore particularly worrying that currently every 10 minutes a woman calls the helpline 1145 set up by the National Women Commission and asks for help – nut that is considered “the tip of the iceberg”. UN Women calls the increase in gender-based violence the shadow pandemic.
Lockdown in Nepal has also meant that daily laborers, itinerant sellers, and small businesses have been deprived of their source of income for months. Women tend to be especially affected as their incomes are generally smaller and more precarious. There are reliable reports of adolescent girl children being married off early since their schooling has ceased; and of women dying in childbirth because they have been unable – or too frightened of the virus - to access medical care. A near 200% increase in maternal mortality was reported in the two-month period from late March to late May.
Foreign labor migrants have also been heavily affected by the lockdown. The poorest amongst them tend to be those who, rather than take huge loans and risk their chances in distant countries, head across the border to India in search of work. These migrant laborers are mainly men – although there are some women amongst them. All have been streaming back home. Recognizing that they might be infected with COVID-19, the Government of Nepal initially denied them entry, but then allowed them in, on condition that they remain in quarantine centers for 14 days. In a huge and hastily organized exercise, it is the municipalities from which the migrants originate that are responsible for establishing these centers. In the province of Karnali, Western Nepal, the wave of incoming migrants from India peaked in June. Women comprised only some 12% of them - but being in such a minority made them vulnerable. There were reports of rape and very poor sanitation and hygiene facilities, including a lack of separate toilets or washing places for women.
Inside a quarantine center in Naraharinath Rural Municipality, Karnali
Sangita B.K. is 24 years old. Five months ago, she travelled to Mumbai with her husband, who had found a job there. After only two months in Mumbai, the country went into lockdown due to the pandemic.
“My husband lost his job and we had to stay the whole day in a small room; our only thought was to return home. Once the lockdown was lifted in India, we began our journey back – it took four difficult days. On arrival in Naraharinath, we had to come to this quarantine center. We are not allowed to go outside and meet anyone, and I’m feeling restless and bored as there is nothing to do… . I had my period whilst staying here which is very uncomfortable when you are crowded with so many people. But at least I could manage with the sanitary pads that I was given.”
The sanitary pads were supplied through Helvetas, which has been working in Karnali for many years, especially in the water sector, and has close contacts with the local government. It was therefore possible to intervene with supplies of soap, sanitizer, masks, gloves, sanitary pads and pedal-operated hand-washing units to eight (rural) municipalities. But as explained by two women who had the responsibility to organize the quarantine centers, the whole situation has been very challenging.
Organizing quarantine centers
Manasobha Budha and Pampha Shahi are elected Deputy Chairs of their respective rural municipalities Naraharinath and Subhakalika. Manosobha’s personal story is documented elsewhere; her observations on the current crisis are as follows.
“As the people’s representative, we cannot shy away from our responsibilities and moral obligation in this crisis. Of course, I get worried that I may be exposed to the virus, but I don’t think we have any alternative. My mother often tells me to be safe and careful while working as I may infect my whole family…. The people kept in quarantine complained and it was difficult to convince them to stay. There was a lot of fear growing in the community about the possible transmission of the virus. We somehow managed but no one was happy with what we did and there were often confrontations.”
Manasobha Budha, Kumalgaon, Kalikot, Nepal
Pampha Shahi’s experience is similar:
“We had very little time to manage everything, hence we could not really think it through. We also couldn’t manage separate spaces for women and men. In a group of 20 people, only two would be women and they would be accompanied by a male relative and were thus reluctant to be separated…. It has been particularly challenging for myself as a woman to be working out-of-office hours. People start questioning and talking about my whereabouts. It’s not the same for the men representatives. My home is a little far from the office and I don’t get to go home every day. It’s been a week since I’ve been home. I stay here in the community and the positive thing about this is that I am well informed of anything that happens and can act swiftly.”
The easing of lockdown in Nepal, and the rise in the rate of COVID-19 infections, means that the work of both women Deputy Chairs will continue to be very demanding in months to come.