Women in a men’s world

In a workforce dominated by men, I was surprised to see two ladies in the training of masons in Gorkha district. I went with the WASH team to witness their activities in the field particularly in Saurpani, a remote VDC of Gorkha, one of the worst affected districts by the 2015 earthquake.

I was surprised not because I have never seen women masons but because in the local context women are hesitant to do the “work of men” since they tend to be judged by society. I knew about the difficulty the team faced to involve women in the masonry work because of the prevailing notions on gender.

When attending a 3-day training masonry training in Saurpani organised by Oxfam and its partner Goreto, I noticed that the two female students, Sita Nepali, 27, and Ramaya Nepali, 26, were very interested, active and not hesitant doing their part in the demonstration of the model latrines. They worked well along with their male counterparts. The women prepared the cracked stones, mixed the cement, piled the bricks and took care of the finishing touches for cementing the septic, flooring and slab.

Sita, a mother of three, was assigned to building one of the demo latrines. She was effectively balancing her role as a trainee mason and her responsibility as a mother.
“I am confident to work with other members of the team to lead the construction of latrines in our community,” said Sita. “This is my first time doing this. I know I have to learn more skills.”

Sita was able to negotiate with her husband to take care of the children while she was in training. Sita’s family is among those whose houses were destroyed by the earthquake and they still live in a temporary shelter. She and her husband are subsistent farmers working at the land owned by relatives and also act as porters of sand and gravel in construction projects.

“Now that I am trained, I will be able to apply the knowledge and skills. I will be able to pay the loan I took earlier and will be able to buy food, medicines and save some money,” Sita said. She said that she owed NR 6000 in loans to sustain her family needs.

She admitted that society may judge her but she is fine with that. “I have the right to be involved in construction work. I have the right to earn a living. I will act as an example to other women. I am not skilled but I took up the challenge. Like me, other women can also do this heavy work,” a confident Sita concluded.

Oxfam and its partners are helping communities build earthquake-resilient family latrines by providing financial support to the masons and deliver materials not readily available in the community, such as the toilet pans, rebar, tie wire, PVCs and cement to construct the substructures. The community provides unskilled labour, local materials and the superstructures.

The trained masons are paid a minimum wage to lead the construction of the latrines for vulnerable families, who are not able to construct themselves.

According to Suk Bahadur Nepali, a 47-year old member of the Ward Citizen’s Forum, there are challenges in involving women in “heavy work”.  He said that women need to be motivated. From his part, he always encourages women to get involved in community development initiatives.

The women are also supported by Dhan Bahadur Dhakal, with a long experience in construction activities in and outside of the community. He is ready to have a dialogue with the community on why women must be permitted to do masonry work and is committed to support the two lady masons to develop their confidence and skills.

In the five operational areas where Oxfam is working with partner organisations, in the first months after the earthquake, close to 300 masons have been trained. Due to different factors, only three female masons participated.  There are more than 10,000 households identified to benefit from the construction of the latrines designed to resist earthquakes.

Sunita Maharjan, the Gender Officer for Oxfam in Gorkha District, believes that this small beginning for lady masons will break the perception on work-related gender stereotypes. Says Sunita: “We want to encourage women to step out of their homes to grab the opportunities. The lady masons set an example that women can perform technical jobs such as the construction of latrines and shelters.”