Women-led responses to Covid-19: Update from Kathmandu, Nepal
Women’s organisations around the world report updates on how the Covid-19 situation has unfolded in their communities and in their work
Urmila Shrestha is Executive Director of Tewa Women’s Fund, a Nepalese women’s rights organisation whose mission is to develop community philanthropy. Tewa provides grants to women’s groups throughout Nepal, raises funds locally with volunteers, and does capacity building of human resources in Nepal.
Urmila reports from Kathmandu, where she is working remotely to support community based organisations
What has changed in Kathmandu/Nepal over the past two months?
The whole world has been affected by the coronavirus crisis and Tewa was due to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, which we’ve been dreaming of and planning since 2018! Originally, we planned to invite around 100 of our grantee partners from across Nepal to the anniversary event, but now we will have to rethink how to celebrate 25 years.
In Nepal, the Covid-19 crisis was huge news, as most organisations don’t have a culture of doing virtual work remotely.
In-person relations with community organisations are really important, so organisations have had to learn how to respond within their capacity.
Donors are being flexible to Covid-19, they’re working to adapt the funding they’ve provided for other projects to provide Covid response, which has been good for us.
Have the impacts of Covid-19 on women and girls changed?
One thing we’ve been doing is to provide funding for a study on women migrant workers, as there are lots of Nepali migrants in the Middle East and India. Up until now, they haven’t been able to return to Nepal, but recently the government has allowed them to come home - but they have to pay their own expenses. This will be very hard for these workers, as the air fares are double at the moment. Many migrant workers are losing their employment, which is likely to impact women particularly, as they will have less money to spend on their children’s education and on the health of the family.
We have also been working on gender-based violence to respond to reports that this is increasing. We’re doing a survey with our partners to find out what types of gender-based violence is occurring, what reasons are behind the violence, and what the response and support has been at the local level.
What challenges have you had along the way in responding to Covid-19?
We have humanitarian experience with the earthquake in 2015 - when this happened, we provided emergency response in-person. But with the lockdown, we have to work virtually - everyone’s at home, so we don’t know who has the virus.
At the moment neither Tewa nor our partners can go into the field, and this has been challenging, as many of our partner organisations don’t have internet access because it’s very expensive in Nepal.
At the moment, we can only communicate by telephone, so we’re trying to build the capacity of our partners to work online. Working with local government has also been a challenge. Whatever support we provide in the community, we have to coordinate with the government and get approval, and this takes time.
How has Tewa responded to the Covid-19 crisis?
As a philanthropic organisation we have experience in responding to humanitarian emergencies like natural disasters, but with this kind of crisis we didn’t know where to start. So, we started with awareness raising - the first thing we did was to send information posters out to our partners. After a few days of uncertainty, we started receiving grant requests from our partners to provide immediate relief. Food relief was the main request we had as people were losing their earnings, so we started to disperse our discretionary emergency grants. During this time we also worked with our bank to launch online banking, to make transferring grants easier and faster during the lockdown.
What do you want to see the humanitarian system do differently to support women’s rights organisations?
When we think of humanitarian support, the first thing we think of is natural disasters - whether it's a tsunami, an earthquake, a landslide. We also tend to think of events that are limited to a local area - not worldwide like the Covid-19 crisis. Previously, our work was based around going into the community, but this isn’t possible during the lockdown, so we need to think about the future of our work. Looking to the future, we need to develop a simple guideline for how we can support communities if this kind of crisis happens again.
When we say humanitarian support we think about infrastructure like houses, schools, health posts, but we have to actually support the human - the person that carries the community. That’s why we put women at the centre of what we do.
When there’s a crisis, conflict or disaster, we invest in women because it’s women that fill the caregiving capacity.
We’ve seen this in the current crisis as women provide care, whether as nurses or in the home. That’s why the humanitarian system needs to invest in women for the future. Then, we need to invest in the elderly and children.
Do you think Covid-19 is an opportunity to bring about positive change?
Yes - when we talk to our grantee partners, they always talk about how communities are spending more time with their families. Families have been bonding and getting to know each other better since they are no longer rushing to work. Many people across Nepal have also returned to agriculture which is a good sign, even if it’s just in a small garden. I think this has really demonstrated the flexibility of the human heart - people are adapting to the current situation and trying to make the best out of it.
As a women’s organisation, Tewa’s point of view has always been to provide women’s organisations with what they need - we don’t impose our ideas on them.
Whatever they want, we respond to their needs and ideas - the donor should also think like this. That could be a message from the Covid-19 crisis to the donor community!