Social Science Baha


Unequal Disaster

Dalits, single women and the elderly have suffered most due to the quake

Sambriddhi Kharel
The Kathmandu Post
5 July 2015

Social exclusion refers to the process by which certain groups are systematically disadvantaged because of discrimination based on region, gender, caste, class, ethnicity, religion, disability and sexual orientation. Different exclusionary methods have been historically practiced against the aforementioned groups, but post-quake there is a sense of fear that this discriminatory attitude might curb the scope of the relief and rehabilitation efforts of the government by filtering out certain sections of society.   

Despite the fact that Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (Gesi) is one of the government’s primary objectives in addressing the issue of social exclusion, it has become clear after the disaster, that the government has not been able to implement it with much success.

As a concept, Gesi addresses the unequal power relations between men and women and between different social groups. It calls for actions to re-balance these power relations and ensure equal rights, opportunities and respect for all individuals regardless of their social identity. Most importantly, it begins by systematically identifying barriers that women and members of different excluded groups may face while taking advantage of a given policy or programme and incorporates mechanisms to help them overcome the barriers.

Vulnerable and excluded
Crises such as natural disasters, armed conflict, epidemics and financial upheaval affect different social groups differently. Research suggests that women and excluded groups are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of disaster risks in developing countries like Nepal. This is because there is a high probability of excluding the vulnerable and marginalised in post-disaster recovery efforts. Hence, it is crucial to use a gendered and socially inclusive lens when assessing the situation and formulating strategies of disaster risk management.

The recent earthquakes hit specific regions and affected people of all backgrounds. When I visited Kavrepalanchok as a volunteer, I noticed that the catastrophe had devastated the region indiscriminately. For example, Dalits and non Dalits alike were affected. Nevertheless, when it came to the impact of the disaster, it was not hard to see that those who bore the heaviest brunt of the disaster were the Dalit, single women and the elderly.  

Whatever food they could salvage were mixed with the debris and hence inedible. New mothers and those with infants were deprived of ante-natal and post-natal care. And members of the Dalit community that I spoke to were in no position to fend for themselves until they had found some kind of employment. Further, they had numerous misgivings about the relief programmes introduced by the government. “You see, we are Dalits. Who will listen to us?” asked a father of three.

An eight months pregnant woman with a 15-month-old on her back and two other kids to take care of told me how difficult it was for her family to take shelter under a flimsy tent with their cattle. They were scared that leopards from nearby forests would devour their cattle at night. Many did not know whether they would be compensated for their livestock that perished in the quake.

Single women and female-headed households face additional challenges during disasters. Apart from carrying out their duties, like taking care of their children and the elderly, they also have to do the tasks that men could have helped with—clearing the debris, putting up the roof and hauling construction materials. They fall behind in obtaining  relief because, given their workload, they are unable to reach distribution centers on time. Many single women wonder how they will make their IDs or go to the designated offices to collect money since they cannot leave the children and elderly behind.

Mistrust among marginalized
In the aftermath of the quake, the Dalits fear exclusion from the state that has historically marginalised them. They still doubt if the government can replace the lost documents (like citizenships, for example) or if it will provide them with the promised Rs 200,000 per family to rebuild their houses.

Questions abound. Survival anxiety is written over the faces of women, Dalits and members of other marginalised communities.

It is important that the government comes up with clear policies and programmes to assuage these doubts and help these people regardless of what some sections of society say. While participating in the relief efforts, I also came across individuals who were critical of survivors being spoiled by rahat. Yes, it is important to teach citizens the art of self-reliance. Yes, there have been cases of misuse of relief and cases of long waits for rahat have been documented. But in my observation, most of the survivors were doing their best—cleaning up and building temporary shelters with what they possessed and received.

Vulnerable populations need the support of and reassurance from the government that they will not be  ‘bypassed’. Though I/NGOs have been active in various parts of the country in the disaster’s aftermath, it is important to know that they are limited by various factors from reaching out to all. These organisations are limited by their target areas, budget issues and donor agendas and can work only in areas with local organisations/partners. There are many areas in Nepal without local organisations and leaders advocating on the behalf of the people there. And even if there are such local organisations, they cannot compensate for the government. It is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the government to help its citizens regardless of their social standing, cultural outlook, religion and gender. I hope the government understands this and implements a Gesi-friendly disaster management strategy.

Kharel has a PhD in Sociology and writes about social inequality and gender issues (


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