'Dignity First' and Other Key Lessons From the Nepal Earthquake

24/04/2016 21:11

Exactly one year ago today, Ishwori Dangol lost her seven-year-old son in the massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake that shattered Nepal. He was one of around 9,000 people killed in the disaster.

Ishwori, seven months pregnant with her second child, became one of the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes and possessions. Overcome with grief and fearful for the well-being of her unborn baby, Ishwori's future looked bleak.

Women, girls and young people are hit hardest by disasters, and the Nepal earthquake was no exception. Around 1.4million women of reproductive age were affected. Among them, some 93,000 women in the hardest-hit districts were pregnant - Ishwori included.

Some 60% of all preventable maternal deaths worldwide occur during natural disasters, conflict and displacement. Far too many women die through lack of access to basic reproductive healthcare.

Moreover, if survivors can't access family planning, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections increase, and unwanted pregnancies can lead to unsafe abortions or unsafe deliveries.

It's also well documented that violence against women, including rape and sexual assault, rises in emergencies, particularly when people are displaced and forced to live together in camps.

Yet in the rush to provide food and shelter to survivors, the specific needs of women and girls can often get sidetracked.

Chief among these, cutting across all aspects of the humanitarian response, is the need for dignity - with women and girls at the centre.

How do we best ensure that women and girls who have experienced traumatic events, lost everything, and feel that there is no hope, can still maintain that basic human need - indeed that basic human right - to feel worthy of honour and respect?

'Dignity First'. Planning our interventions with this concept - this pledge - as our guide, UNFPA's humanitarian response in Nepal took on a dimension that sought to truly address their needs in a way that providing supplies alone could not.

So what does dignity look like to female earthquake survivors?

It means being able to maintain personal hygiene through sanitary pads, clean clothes, soap, toothpaste, flashlights and other essentials provided to women and girls via UNFPA's trademark Dignity Kits, about 560,000 thousand of which were distributed in the first few months following the quake, across the 14 hardest-hit districts.

It means feeling safe before, during and after childbirth, and feeling confident in being able to protect one's children and oneself - through the 132 mobile reproductive health camps supported by UNFPA and partners in collaboration with the Government, often in remote locations, which reached over 104,000 people in the first five months after the disaster.

It means, in the case of over 108,000 women, being able to access services to prevent or respond to gender-based violence, including psychosocial counselling, through the 14 Female Friendly Spaces set up in the hardest-hit districts, and being met with competence, respect and confidentiality.

It means being asked one's opinion, feeling heard, and being informed. And it means having somewhere to go as a last resort.

These are not luxuries. They are essentials.

As Nepal moves into a longer-term recovery phase we've seen some positive developments amid the lessons learnt from our humanitarian response.

Sexual and reproductive healthcare has been accessed by some of the hardest to reach communities as part of the earthquake response. These Himalayan communities are now pushing their local authorities to make sure these services continue.

Through counselling and support to survivors of violence, we're helping chip away at some of the deeper attitudes that fuel violence against women, trafficking, child marriage and other forms of abuse.

Our Female Friendly Spaces have also served as a springboard for survivors to learn basic but marketable skills - such as knitting or weaving - from a livelihood perspective, so that they can start earning a living as they rebuild their lives.

Women, girls and young people have had the opportunity to help shape the humanitarian response from their special perspectives, thereby gaining a sense of empowerment as agents of change that can help shape their lives going forward.

The key lesson, perhaps, is that all of these responses and interventions need to be linked together better, to ensure maximum impact and benefit, as well as long-term sustainability.

Ishwori Dangol's story encapsulates all of this.

Afraid she would miscarry after the shock of the earthquake and losing her first-born in the disaster, Dangol was guided by a female community health volunteer to a UNFPA-supported reproductive health camp.

There she underwent vital tests, and learnt that her baby was 'upside down'. The camp referred her to the biggest health facility in the district that was only partly damaged by the quake.

On July 10, a little more than two months after the earthquake, she gave birth safely via caesarian section to a baby boy.

Today, Dangol is a happy mother again, working with her husband to save up for a new home.

Her story mirrors that of many others in emergencies in Nepal and around the world - women who need to be reached and engaged as champions of participation in humanitarian response - a response underpinned by the promise of 'Dignity First.'