A Woman at the Forefront of Resilience in Nepal

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07/03/2013 – Sonawati Rana, 21, managed to scramble to the rooftop of her house just in time to avoid being swept away by the floods that hit Western Nepal four years ago. She is physically challenged and lives in Jaijai, a former Kamaiya (freed bonded labourers) camp in Kanchanpur district.

“My parents have lost their home three times due to the floods”, she says. Jaijai is surrounded by the Doda and Banara rivers which often swell during the monsoons. During such emergencies people with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable groups due to their limited mobility. Preparedness for their safe evacuation is minimal, and they are rarely included in decision making by community members.

But now Sonawati, leading the disaster management committee of her village, is trying to change that. Although, being a physically disabled woman from an impoverished family, it was not always easy.

Social exclusion

As a child, Sonawati had to give up her education in favour of her brothers. “When parents are not in a position to afford education, boys are preferred over girls. Girls are treated as objects to be handed over to someone else”, she explains.

Her problems were compounded by villagers frequently gibing at her impairment. An incident involving her teacher during a musical chair game continued tormenting her for days. “My teacher came, laughed at me and told me I couldn’t be a winner. Everyone started laughing. I left the game and cried throughout the night”.

Spreading resilience

Now that she leads the Community Disaster Management Committee (CDMC) of her village, the uncertainties of her earlier life have finally abated. She informs her peers about the importance of taking measures to reduce the impact of floods, making her community more resilient.

With funding from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), Handicap International supported the involvement of disabled people in the village disaster management committees over the last couple of years. An initiative which enables people with disabilities to identify their own vulnerabilities and take measures to reduce disaster risks themselves.

Sonawati is committed to enhancing the resilience of her community to natural disasters, adding that she would like to get more training on Early Warning Systems, First Aid, and Search and Rescue. Besides, she is keen to encourage women with disabilities and other vulnerable groups to participate actively in planning, implementing and monitoring of disaster risk management initiatives in their communities for a safe and secure life ahead.

“I am loved and respected by the community members in ways that I had never imagined possible before. I am glad to be a leader of the community” she says. “Both my elder and younger sisters are married but I don’t mind staying single as my parents are proud of me now. I am empowered”.

By Pierre Prakash, ECHO’s Regional Information Officer in New Delhi