Women Stonemasons Help Rebuild Nepal After Earthquake Devastation

More than 1 million homes were damaged or destroyed during the earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25, 2015. With many Nepali men working overseas, women are learning new skills to help rebuild the country from the rubble.

Written by Jennifer Rigby Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
After losing her home in Nepal’s 2015 earthquake, Binita trained as a stonemason, a job traditionally reserved for men. Now she can support her family as she helps rebuild her community.Plan International

Binita, 20, can’t forget the day Nepal was hit by its biggest earthquake in decades.

“I saw the house start shaking, and I grabbed my siblings,” she says. “I was afraid …but I had to be strong for my younger siblings. [Then] my house collapsed, which made me so sad.”

Binita lives in Dolakha district, one of the areas worst affected by the 7.8-magnitude quake of April 25, 2015, which killed nearly 9,000 people across the country.

Her family home was one of more than 800,000 that were damaged or destroyed. In total, 5.6 million people were affected by the disaster.

Two years later, the recovery in poverty-stricken Nepal has barely begun. Nearly 15,000 people remain in temporary camps and many more, particularly in remote rural areas, are still living under tarpaulin or corrugated iron sheets while they wait for government aid to help rebuild their shattered lives.

But Binita isn’t waiting. She’s doing it herself.

Cheerfully wielding a hammer, she says: “I have fully constructed three homes, and am currently rebuilding one house.” It takes her two months to build a house with her team of male colleagues.

With help, at first, from the charity Plan International, Binita has trained to become a stonemason. Now she’s helping rebuild her village, and earning a living doing it.

In a country where women still struggle to prove their right to own property and, in some areas, girls are banished from the home when they have their periods, this is no small feat. “I was the only woman who did the training,” Binita says. “Before, I was worried about taking on a traditionally male role. But once I received the knowledge, I felt confident and knew I could do the work.”

And she isn’t the only one. Women like Binita can be seen hauling bricks and mixing plaster across Nepal. This gender shift is partly due to Nepalis realizing that they needed all hands on deck to start rebuilding, but also because many Nepali men are simply not there.

According to the United Nations, one third of all Nepali households have at least one member living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s the men who emigrate – usually to the Gulf – looking for better-paid construction work to support their families back home. Many are on long, strict contracts, and have been unable to return even after the earthquake.

That leaves a gap in the country’s working population. For many women, out of the rubble has come opportunity.

“Women can do the same sort of work as men,” Binita says. “Now I am proud to be a lady who supports her family and works as a female mason. I can be an example for all the young women who are jobless.”

Oxfam’s country director in Nepal, Cecilia Keizer, agrees. “We are seeing a lot of changed behavior,” she says. “Very often in these rural areas there are not many men left and that empowers women, because they have to take care of everything.”

Oxfam is also working to support women taking on leadership positions in their communities post-earthquake.

“They need a little push because this is such a repressive society for women,” Keizer says. “But when they get that, it’s amazing to see what they can achieve – from reconstructing their own houses to putting toilets in schools. Having women in leadership positions, it’s a huge thing for Nepal.”

Two years on from the earthquake, many Nepalis in remote areas are still living in temporary shelters. (Plan International)

But until gender roles change at home, working women often find themselves taking on a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for supporting and raising their families, Plan International’s gender specialist in Kathmandu, Shiba Satyal Banskota, says.

“You cannot expect total change within two years of the earthquake,” she says. “These gender norms are really difficult to change … We have to make sure this is not just an extra burden for [women].”

That’s a familiar story for Binita. She earns a good salary – 800 Nepali rupees a day (around $8), almost three times the national minimum wage – but still has to get up at 4 a.m. to get her chores done before starting her 11-hour work day.

Sumana Shrestha, a Nepali entrepreneur who came home from the U.S. to help after the earthquake, is also worried about inequality between working men and women. She is currently working on heritage rebuilding projects, but also runs Medication for Nepal, a citizen-led initiative to get medicine and health awareness out to remote areas.

“The women are expected to work all the time while the men play cards or get drunk,” she says. “I feel women are ultimately the backbone [of the rebuilding effort]. They have to be, really, because otherwise I don’t know who is going to lead the reconstruction.”

Binita says she is just doing her duty.

“I have to provide for my family,” she says. She still faces social stigma when she tells people what she does for a living, and she can’t speak about personal things like getting her period when she’s on site. But she’s proud of her work. Her dream now is to rebuild her family home, when they have the money.

“I am lucky,” she says.

 

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