More than 41 per cent of women lost their jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown in Nepal. Responding to their practical needs, UN Women with support from the Government of Finland has been ensuring their access to food and nutrition through women-managed community kitchens across Nepal. Pushpa Sunar is one of the 123 people employed in the community kitchens, which is providing an income to the women working there and helping to alleviate the care burden among other women, as well as build trust and cohesion in the communities.
“How can I be given medicine to take on a full stomach when I don’t have any food to eat? Could you please prescribe medicine that I can take on an empty stomach?”
These questions were posed by a woman in rural Nepal to a doctor and shared by a participant of the Gender in Humanitarian Action Task Team (GiHA TT), a UN Women Nepal-chaired multi-stakeholder network of civil society organizations, UN agencies and the Government of Nepal. GiHA TT has been advancing the incorporation of gender equality and social inclusion into Nepal’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vulnerable and excluded groups of women, including returnee migrants, rural dwellers, women with disabilities, daily wage workers, and women who are ill, pregnant or lactating, have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. More than 41 per cent of women lost their jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown in Nepal. Responding to their practical needs, UN Women with support from the Government of Finland has been ensuring their access to food and nutrition through women-managed community kitchens across Nepal – 10 community kitchens have been set up in four of Nepal’s seven provinces. The community kitchens are a component of UN Women’s comprehensive relief package to support vulnerable women with food and non-food items, address gender-based violence, unpaid work and lack of access to information, and challenge discriminatory gender norms and harmful practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Pushpa Sunar, 30, from Nepalganj city heard about UN Women’s partner Maiti Nepal starting a community kitchen, she went to their office and asked if she could work there. “At first, they did not believe I could cook for 500 people,” says Sunar. “But I explained that I cooked at all the weddings and celebrations in my village. Convinced about my skills, they let me work as the Assistant Chef.”
Sunar is one of the 123 people employed in the community kitchens across Nepal. Her 30,000 Nepalese rupee (USD 250) monthly income has been key in sustaining her family of six (her parents, brothers, daughter-in-law and niece) during COVID. Before the pandemic, Sunar worked as a social activist preventing child marriage in her community, but the project ran out of funding. Her father, who worked as a security guard at a bank, has not received regular income since the lockdown.
Each meal prepared at the community kitchens includes rice, daal (lentil soup), spinach, vegetable, pickle, fruits, ladoo (sweets), and a bottle of water. The women take special care to maintain a high level of hygiene while preparing and packing the food. On average they make 250 meals daily, although, sometimes, up to 500 meals are requested.
Sunar and her team of eight people start cooking at 5 a.m. in order to have the meals ready for delivery by 9 a.m. When Sunar went on a few delivery trips she realized that people would save the meal to eat at night as that would be their only meal for the day. Some would tell Sunar how they could not afford to eat such nutritious food even when there was no lockdown. Others would cry with gratitude for receiving food in such dire circumstances.
The community kitchens have provided an income to the women working there, while also helping to alleviate the care burden among other women in the communities. “Women are often the ones cooking for their entire families at home but are hesitant to do so professionally and earn an income,” says Sunar. “When women are financially independent, they no longer have to be dependent on the men in their families.”
“All the staff working in the community kitchens were either unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic or were sustaining their families with minimal income,” says Maheshwari Bhatta, a Project Coordinator at Maiti Nepal. “We are not only increasing their energy with nutritious food, but also developing their immunity in these desperate times,” she adds.
Free meals from the community kitchens have also helped build trust and cohesion in the community while supporting women from diverse backgrounds. “The government was distributing food items, but it was far from enough,” says Bhatta. Maiti Nepal and other CSOs managing community kitchens work with local governments to estimate the number of meals needed in each area.
“It is important for women to take on leadership roles,” says Anjana Vaidya, a Programme Associate at UN Women Nepal. “Our experience of running community kitchens during the pandemic has shown that women are not only beneficiaries but frontline workers in crises.”
Since June 2020, four CSOs – Women for Human Rights, Maiti Nepal, Nagarik Aawaz, and Nari Bikas Sangh – have been intermittently operating community kitchens, depending on COVID restrictions. With UN Women’s financial and technical support, they served over 95,000 meals and baby food to 30,000 people between June 2020 and January 2021.