LWF Nepal reaches out to Dalit earthquake survivors

Rosni Paryar, in front of her partially destroyed home. She fear she will remain unemployed because she of the Dalit caste. Photo: LWF/Lucia de Vries
Rosni Paryar, in front of her partially destroyed home. She fear she will remain unemployed because she of the Dalit caste. Photo: LWF/Lucia de Vries

“No power in this world”

(LWI) - “What am I supposed to do now?” Rosni Paryar, 19, looks worried and disheveled when she shows us her collapsed house in Kusunthali village in the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. The top floor of her brick house is almost fully destroyed and the ground floor is filled with rubble. “Me and my family have been hit by the earthquake in two ways,” she says.

Paryar is the first young woman in her village of 75 people to finish high school. She was preparing for the final exam in April when the earthquake destroyed all but one house in Kusunthali. She now lives with her parents and three siblings in a temporary shelter. As her father is the only provider for the family, Paryar has also been looking for work for the past two months. She applied to work as a teacher in different schools but has not yet been hired. “Without connections a person like me will not be selected,” she says, despondent.

Lack of connections and support

Paryar belongs to the caste of the tailors, together with other artisan groups, termed Dalits, the lowest Hindu caste. Formerly referred to as “untouchables”, members of this caste are tainted by birth in a system that deems them impure. Although discrimination was outlawed in Nepal by the 1962 Civil Code and 1990 Constitution, Dalits still face many obstacles to social, economic and political equality.

They are therefore one of the five vulnerable groups which receive special attention from Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Nepal. “Dalit artisans do not have equal access to services even in normal times,” says LWF Nepal Country Director Prabin Manandhar. “They usually live in less accessible places, on hill tops for instance, and lack the political connections that are helpful to get support.”

During the first relief phase, immediately after the earthquake, LWF Nepal used a “blanket approach” of reaching out to all households in allocated areas. “Dalit communities like Kusunthali received the same support as other villages,” Manandhar says. As LWF relief work now focuses on recovery, special emphasis is given to women-headed households, elderly people, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and Dalits.

Different needs

In the fourteen districts affected by the earthquake, 13 percent of the population belongs to artisan castes such as tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths and “washer men”. As Dalits, they had a difficult life even before the earthquake. With Nepal connecting to international markets, their homemade goods face competition from cheaper ready-made goods, making it harder for them to sell their products. It is estimated that 41 percent of Dalits live below poverty level.

In Kusunthali, it becomes clear that artisans have different needs from other groups. None of the Dalit families own any land beyond that on which their houses are built. Almost all of them depend on tailoring and daily wage labor to survive. Owning no land, only very few are eligible for a loan to rebuild.

The income from tailoring has been sharply reduced since the earthquake. Almost all sewing machines were buried in the rubble. A few women continue to sew by hand and one surviving sewing machine was recently repaired. Still, clients have stopped visiting the village. Private customers need all their money for rebuilding after the damage and therefore do not often order new clothes. Many business customers are still closed mostly because staff has not shown up for work - they help their families in the villages planting and harvesting, or constructing better shelter. 

Paryar wonders how her people will recover from the earthquake. “In my parents’ generation almost nobody can read or write,” she says. “They have no power in this world and depend solely on manual work. My father has six mouths to feed. Without me having a job, how on earth can he manage?”

LWF support

Manandhar says the story of Paryar can be repeated all over the country. “While other families will soon be harvesting crops or get back to work and out of dependency, landless artisans will need much longer to recover. That is why we are committed to provide the tools and other kinds of support needed to get Dalits back on their feet.”

In July, LWF’s corrugated iron sheets have arrived in Kusunthali. They will enable the families to build a stronger roof on their temporary shelter. Livelihood support and psychological counselling will follow soon. With the extra support from LWF Nepal, quake-affected Dalit families stand a chance of rebuilding their lives.

In the immediate response to the 2015 earthquake, LWF Nepal, with the support of ACT Alliance members, supported over 110,000 families with emergency relief. The organization is committed to helping families in five affected districts to rebuild their lives through food security, shelter, water and sanitation and psychological assistance, and link this with long-term development.

Contribution by Lucia de Vries/ LWF Nepal