In Nepal, when women get their period, they are banished from their home. Many areas of the country still practise “chaupadi”, an old religious custom where women are considered impure when they are menstruating. They have to spend their time of the month separate from the others, in the cowshed or other outbuildings. But on 25 April 2015 the earthquake happened, and everything changed. Nearly 9,000 people were killed, tens of thousands injured, and in many areas, there were no more houses to be banished from. “Right after the earthquake, in one village, I saw a woman who had her period, and she was using a banner of a political party [as a sanitary towel]. She was bleeding. She had no clothes. She had lost everything,” remembers Renu Sharma, head of the Women’s Foundation Nepal. Since those days, things have got a little better. Although the recovery from the earthquake in Nepal has been slow, most now at least have shelters made of tarpaulin, bamboo or corrugated iron. Amid the gloom of living within these flimsy mountainside shelters, for women and girls who faced the indignity of chaupadi, there is an unexpected glimmer of light. “It was unfair, but it changed after the earthquake,” says 17-year-old Selina, from Dolakha district. Now, she stays in the shelter when she gets her period, simply because there is nowhere else to go. It might seem small, but it isn’t the only change women in Nepal are seeing as their country attempts to put itself back together after the quake. Makha Thami, 31, remembers when the first of the two massive earthquakes struck. “At first I didn’t have any idea what to do next,” she says. “My house collapsed. I had no means to get money. I had to look after my children.”
Then the charity Plan International visited her village Suspa, with food, tarpaulins – a blue one still covers the rubble of her home as we talk – and an idea. “They suggested I become a mason,” she says. Even in the UK, women working in the construction industry are rare. In a highly patriarchal society like Nepal, it was practically unheard of. But in many ways it was the only solution, because Nepal had another problem in the wake of the disaster: a lack of men. According to the United Nations, a third of all Nepali households have at least one member working and living abroad. In almost all cases, it is the men who leave. In a population of 27.8m, nearly 10% have sought better-paid work overseas, from building the World Cup stadium in Qatar to masonry in Malaysia. Many companies did not let their workers return home after the quake, including the one Makha’s husband works for. “It was hard,” she says briefly, eyes clouding over. But the suggestion that she become a mason changed her life. “I didn’t ever imagine we would work like this,” she says. “I always thought they were the jobs of men. But only after the earthquake, when the demand for masons was so high, I realised I can learn and do the job.” She had two days of training and now works in a team of three to build shelters in her area. The first two she built, after the second major earthquake on 12 May, were for her family. It’s not a happy ending: Makha and her husband still have $5,000 of debt on their now-collapsed home, and they pay a shocking 36% interest on the loan. But she now makes 19,800 Nepali rupees a month ($186), compared to nothing before, and believes women have a huge role to play across Nepal. “It was good for me to learn a woman can have skills like this. Now more and more women come to me and tell me they want training,” she says, as her two children – a 12-year-old son and an eight-year old daughter – chase goats around the yard.
“It’s a bit harsh to say, but in the worst situation people are becoming stronger,” says Cecilia Keizer, head of Oxfam in Nepal, who says the “feminization of the workforce” can be seen across Nepal after the disaster. “It is still very difficult – there is a lot of trafficking of girls, child marriage, and violence against women is quite high... But on the other hand we’re seeing a lot of women stepping up and taking charge, rebuilding, and taking the traditional ‘man’s jobs’.” Other women are shouldering the burden of recovery in different ways. In the capital Kathmandu, six hours drive away, the mainly ceremonial role of President of Nepal is held by a woman, Bidhya Devi Bhandari. Back in Dolakha, Perna Maya Thapa Magar’s son, and her daughter-in-law Naina Kumari’s husband, is also abroad for work. “Even though my husband is not here, I’ve connected with my mother-in-law and we support each other,” says Naina. “We are empowered. We can take things into our own hands.” Traditionally women stay in their houses and do household chores, but Naina and Perna have taken jobs to make money, and now plough fields, clear debris and carry wood and stones. “We are managing,” says Naina firmly, although she admits she cannot think of their old house without pain. It used to be three storeys and is now just one, and there is no spare money to rebuild it. But Naina laughs when I ask if she thinks men and women are equal.
“There’s always more work for women. We support the men in their work now, but there are no men washing the floors or cooking,” she says. Makha gets up at 4am to complete her work in the house before going to her masonry job at 10am. “Just breaking stereotypes doesn’t necessarily make things better for women,” says Dr Shiba Satyal Banskota, gender specialist at Plan International in Nepal. “Society as a whole has to change its attitude. “It can be likened to World War Two [when women’s rights improved because men realised how crucial they had been during the conflict]. The earthquake caused great psychological trauma. It’s not a silver bullet, but given time, we can hope for positive change.” For Makha, change cannot come quickly enough. “I wish we could be equal,” she says, eagerly explaining the next thing she wants to learn is how to build a permanent home for her family. So can women in Nepal do anything, I ask – can they be truck drivers, electricians, whatever? Makha pauses and smiles a bit, but then says passionately: “If we are given the space by society to do this, we can do this. People say only men can, but women can.”