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Women masons help build stronger homes in quake-hit Nepal

26 September 2018

By Arun Karki

With men abroad for jobs, women are learning building skills - giving them an income and the country a faster recovery

On a recent summer morning, Suntali Rai was busy counting and stacking zinc sheets as she prepared to lay them on the roof of the house she had started building a month earlier.

If it didn't rain, she planned to finish the roofing in a couple of days. Within a week, she said, she should be done with the two-room concrete house.

Then her family would finally be able to move out of their wrecked wooden home, which has been almost uninhabitable since an earthquake shook the country three years ago.

"Sometimes we don't sleep, (but) rather keep our eyes open for the entire night when there happens to be heavy rainfall because the rainwater keeps coming inside the house," said Rai, 28.

"We can't stay here anymore."

Rai's house in Raigaun, a village in Makawanpur district, nearly 200 km (125 miles) southeast of Nepal's capital Kathmandu, has been standing only precariously since April 2015.

That is when a 7.6-magnitude earthquake killed about 9,000 people and left more than 785,000 families homeless in one of the world's poorest nations.

The government set up the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) to fix or rebuild the homes of all affected residents by 2020.

But progress has been slow, in part due to a lack of materials and skilled labour, with thousands of men leaving the country each week to look for work, according to the United Nations.

Tired of waiting for someone else to build her a safer home, Rai enrolled in a 50-day mason training course through the Employment Fund, a programme run by the non-profit Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation Nepal.

When she was done, she joined with four other course graduates to build her family a new house. This time, it is designed to stay intact if another earthquake hits.

Launched in 2015 and due to end in 2020, the Skills for Reconstruction project teaches Nepalis in earthquake-hit areas how to build disaster-resilient houses.

The aim is to help ease the country's labour shortage while also arming participants with masonry and carpentry experience they can later use to find jobs in construction.

In Makawanpur district, a third of trainees have been women.

For many of them, learning masonry has allowed them to break free from traditional roles of farming and caregiving and finally make an income of their own.

"So far, I have built 15 other houses in neighbouring villages and earned 250,00 rupees ($2,500), which I will spend on house furnishings and paint," Rai said.

Designs for life

The training project is jointly financed by the Nepalese government, the Swiss Development Cooperation and Britain's Department for International Development.

Since its launch, it has trained almost 9,000 people in the 14 districts most severely affected by the earthquake and most vulnerable to future climate disasters, said Sujan Dhoj Khadka, technical coordinator at the Employment Fund.

Trainees have rebuilt more than 3,000 houses in 10 of those districts.

In the other four, limited access to remote areas and a shortage of skilled labourers to run the training programmes has stalled reconstruction, Khadka added.

"I have seen that there are women who receive training who are mostly illiterate. Some can only write their names," Khadka said.

"However, they are still able to apply the acquired technical skills in construction work, like measuring area, length and height."

Many of the new homes have been built using housing grants from the National Reconstruction Authority. In Makawanpur district, about 33,250 families are eligible to receive grants of 300,000 rupees ($3,000) each, paid out in three tranches.

In order to be eligible for a grant, new houses must adhere to one of 34 seismic-resilient designs published by the NRA, said Bhupendra Aeri, a civil engineer with the agency.

Most of the houses destroyed by the earthquake across rural Nepal were made using traditional materials of wood and stone, with no pillars for support.

The designs prescribed by the NRA for new buildings are more likely to withstand earthquakes. Builders can choose from a range of materials, techniques and layouts – from a two-storey structure made of steel and bricks to a two-room home constructed from rubble, mud and wire.

"People here have mostly followed the one- or two-room model homes," Aeri said. Anyone living close to a river must rebuild at least 20 metres (65 feet) away from the riverbank to avoid floodwaters reaching their homes during the rainy season.

Some families in remote areas that the mason training programme could not reach have rebuilt their homes without following the NRA's building codes and criteria, he said.

But "the NRA will not provide a second or third tranche of the building grant to such beneficiaries," he said.

Slow progress

Jagat Bahadur Lama, a local leader of Makawanpur who is helping families get housing grants, said another factor slowing reconstruction efforts is lack of land ownership certificates.

He said 68 families from three wards in Raigaun had not received even the first tranche of their housing grants because they have no documentation to prove they own the land they live on.

Despite the government's land reform programme that began four decades ago, up to a quarter of the population still has no legal right to land, according to the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration.

"The families should be given grants based on where they have been living for many years," said Lama. "It is not a very hard job to verify their residential status locally."

As Nepal slowly rises from the rubble, many people who have gone through the mason training say their new homes come with a renewed sense of safety and stability.

Kanchhi Rai, a resident of Raigaun who recently graduated from the training programme, is almost finished building a two-room house to replace the one that was damaged in the earthquake.

She had help from her carpenter husband, who calls it their "dream home".

"I think I have laid a strong foundation," Kanchhi Rai said.

Read the original story here