© Flurina Rothenberger

How Trail Bridges Impact Women’s Lives

BY: Ansu Tumbahangfe, Agnès Montangero - 05. August 2022
© Flurina Rothenberger

The demand for trail bridges is high in Nepal due to the topography, which includes large numbers of rivers that crisscross the country, as well as the predominance of travel on foot trails in rural areas, low road density and the relative lower cost of these bridges.

The systematic construction of trail bridges began in Nepal in 1964, following a centuries-old tradition of indigenous bridge building. About 9,000 trail bridges have been built so far across the country’s dense river network, thanks to the continuous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Helvetas’ technical assistance. Almost half of the country’s population – about 14 million people – have benefitted from this improved access, with an estimated 1.4 million people crossing a trail bridge each day.

Below, Helvetas’ rural access specialist Agnès Montangero interviews Ansu Tumbahangfe, author of a recent UNESCAP paper about mainstreaming gender in Nepal’s trail bridge sector.

How has the development of trail bridges in Nepal impacted the life of women?

When we talk to women, the main changes that are consistently highlighted are safety, time saved and convenience. We often hear, “The lives of our children, husbands, mothers and sisters are no longer at risk when crossing the river.” On average, trail bridges help people save 2.4 hours roundtrip. This time is used by women to perform household chores, take care of the kids, and go to the market. I am sure you have seen women carrying large loads of firewood or fodder on their back when you were in Nepal. Clearly, being able to use the bridge to cross the river has reduced women’s drudgery and made their lives easier.

And what about girls?

Girls attend school more regularly thanks to the bridges. Before, in many cases, girls wouldn’t be able to reach their schools due to rising river waters. Or, if they were already at school, they would have to rush back home immediately as soon as the rains began to ensure they did not get stranded on the wrong riverbank. The lack of bridges therefore meant that girls would miss out on their schooling. This is not the case anymore.

It is common in Nepal for children to help their parents feed livestock, clean their homes and collect firewood. Generally, this chore falls on daughters, with most having to get up early to ensure that these duties are fulfilled before they go to school. So, when over 2 hours detour time is saved, they no longer have to wake up so early and are able to reach schools on time. Similarly, after returning from school, they have more time to do their homework. All these small changes have helped them improve in their studies.

Have the bridges contributed to improving women’s employment and income?

The trail bridge program – a bilateral initiative of the government of Nepal and the SDC – promotes labor-based construction; employment opportunities for women is a priority. Presently, women make up almost 30% of the community involved in construction. That’s an opportunity for them to gain employment. Unfortunately, in most cases, women have access to unskilled labor only. We are thinking of enhancing women’s masonry skills by linking with other Helvetas skills development projects.

We observe that the new bridges create opportunities for employment. For example, women say that they can travel back and forth to the market within one day and gain wage labor. This was not possible without the bridges because it would be too risky to cross rivers in the evening. Our records show that at 16% of bridge sites, new tea shops/restaurants and convenience stores emerge.

Do women have a voice in the planning and decision-making for trail bridge construction?

Yes, to some extent. The Nepal trail bridge policy has introduced quotas for women’s participation in trail bridge user committees, including in leadership positions. According to the current trail bridge policy framework, women should make up 50% of user committees’ representatives, and at least one woman should be in a leadership position (i.e., as committee chair, secretary or treasurer). This opens the door for women to take such opportunities. These quotas are effectively achieved in 95% of the bridge sites.

Of course, it is not easy for all women members to actively engage in bridge building, considering their care work responsibilities (such as cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and elderly relatives). Our assessments show that only women who are supported by their husbands, families and other committee members are able to become actively involved in the committee leadership, since they have the support required to devote their time to trail bridge building and also the confidence to step out of their homes.

Does this experience support women’s empowerment beyond the trail bridge sector?

We observe that being in a leadership position in a trail bridge user committee represents a springboard for women’s careers. It enables women to gain exposure and confidence. For example, in a recent case in Gandaki province, a women acted as chairperson of the trail bridge committee. Community members appreciated the work she did as a committee chair. Then, during the municipal elections, thanks to the confidence gained as a committee chair, she stood up as a candidate and is now the mayor of her palika (municipality).  

I imagine that these quotas are not easy to enforce. What are concrete measures that help enhance the proportion of women involved in trail bridge committees?

Considerable investments are required to ensure implementation of these policy provisions. We encourage supportive measures such as providing a caretaker for children and a milk allowance for women with small babies so that they do not self-exclude and can take part in trainings. At the operational level, one simple measure is to set the timing of the committee meetings in a way that does not conflict with other tasks women usually carry out.

What would you recommend to government officials in other countries who are now in the process of developing their trail bridge policy?

The Nepal Trail Bridge Strategy and the subsequent Nepal Trail Bridge Sector Wide Approach Frameworks are characterized by incremental increase in targets. In 2006, the quota for women participation in user committees was 30%. It was based on what was realistically achievable at that time. Prior to publishing the first trail bridge strategy in 2006, women’s participation in trail bridge committees was around 24%. In each successive policy frameworks, women’s quotas were slightly increased. The current proportion of 50% included in the current policy framework is aligned with the new constitution, which commits to end gender-based discrimination and stipulates that women’s participation should be proportional to the population in development-related sectors. This progressive target setting is considered as crucial for the acceptance of policy changes and effective implementation. I would recommend that other countries adopt this principle of incremental changes. It's unlikely that you will get the buy-in of government officials for a quota of 50% women’s participation as a starting point.

Moreover, as already discussed, those policy provisions must be accompanied by investments in social mobilization. A lot of awareness-raising is needed, since those changes are linked to fundamental changes in the perception of the distribution of roles between women and men. The process of supporting women in care work so that they can assume their responsibilities in user committees needs to be facilitated. Skilled NGOs are required for this facilitation. More than technical skills are needed to support the development of the trail bridge sector.

Finally, I would suggest emphasizing the creation of evidence. Monitoring women’s participation, including in decision-making positions, will provide evidence that will support the policy development process. This should not only be limited to quantitative data. Monitoring the qualitative development of women’s participation, for example, by documenting stories, also supports understanding the dynamics influencing changes in the life of women. Demonstrating evidence also supports the buy-in for gradually increasing targets of women’s participation.

About the Authors

Ansu Tumbahangfe is the Results Monitoring and Reporting Manager at the Trail Bridge Support Unit for the Trail Bridge Sub-Sector Program, a bilateral initiative of the government of Nepal and the SDC, with technical support from Helvetas Nepal. She has over eight years of experience in the trail bridge sector.

Agnès Montangero is supporting Helvetas’ work in the rural access sector, in particular the trail bridge South-South Cooperation Unit, in the development of strategic partnerships, design of new initiatives and documentation of project learnings. She has more than 20 years of experience in development in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Her focus in the past years has been on promoting a systemic approach in the rural infrastructure sector as a way to enhance sustainability and scale.

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