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The roving shelters: improving girls’ lives in post-earthquake Nepal

Young girls observe and laugh during an awareness session on their rights in one of Aura Freedom's Female Friendly Spaces, Nepal | Photo credit: Mandy Glinsbockel | Aura Freedom International.

On 25 April 2015, an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude shook Nepal to its core. A few days later, another earthquake hit the country, plunging it deeper into the crisis. Over eight million men, women and children were displaced and hundreds of thousands were made homeless.

For many girls, the earthquake has dramatically narrowed the limited options they once had and increased their vulnerability to child marriage, which already affected 41% of them prior to the crisis.

One year on, we look at an initiative by Aura Freedom International and local partners Apeiron – providing shelter to women and girls who’ve lost everything in the earthquake, teaching them about their rights and offering practical and psychological support to protect them from violence, including child marriage.

Girls are more vulnerable to child marriage during natural disasters

A growing body of evidence shows that humanitarian crises disproportionately affect girls and women and can increase their vulnerability to child marriage.

Natural disasters such as the one that hit Nepal last year often exacerbate factors that already drive child marriage – poverty, lack of access to education and insecurity. Marriage becomes a survival strategy for families looking to make ends meet. In a recent report by Human Rights Watch, families in Bangladesh named desperate poverty as a result of the floods and subsequent erosion as the reason why they married off their daughters.

Displacement can also play a role in driving child marriage rates up. Evidence from countries like Jordan or Turkey suggest that displaced families saw child marriage as a way of protecting their daughters from sexual violence.

Despite the evidence, girls and women continue to be left behind in humanitarian response efforts.

Female-friendly spaces

In light of the crisis in Nepal, Aura Freedom International set out to provide post-earthquake support to women and girls through the unlikely medium of roving shelters.

Since June 2015, ten female-friendly spaces have been travelling to camps across Nepal, serving three main functions:

  1. Educating women and girls about their rights, child marriage, and sexual violence, as well as teaching them financial and income-generating skills;
  2. Referring women and girls to health, legal and other services available through local organisations, police and government agencies;
  3. Giving them a safe space to report violence.

The shelters also provide legal services for women and girls to obtain crucial ID and citizenship documents, while sports camps for adolescent girls use physical activities to empower them.

Photo credit Mandy Glinsbockel - Aura Freedom International

Women participate in an information session on child marriage in one of Aura Freedom’s Female Friendly Spaces. Photo credit Mandy Glinsbocke | Aura Freedom International.

Every day, dozens of women and girls gather in these shelters, buzzing with energy and curiosity and finding a space that is, for the first time since the earthquake, their own.

“Before you came, we were sitting in the corners of our tents, waiting for the day to end. Now, we have somewhere to go and things to do,” explains one woman.

“We never knew we had these rights. As women, we are told to endure abuse for the sake of everyone else. But, now I know there is another way,” explained another participant.

Impact so far

Indeed, initial findings show that the shelters have had a significant impact on women and girls’ attitudes towards their role in society.

Aura Freedom Int'l - Survey findings 2Aura Freedom Int'l - Survey findings 1
After taking part, 97% of participants felt that violence against women was never acceptable, as opposed to only 5% previously. Similarly, 94% of participants now felt that girls’ education is very important, as opposed to 49% before.

Many of the women, old and young, then form their own watch groups, telling the rest of the community about what they have learned.

Take Bina for instance. This 16-year-old is a young wife and mother. After taking part in Aura Freedom International’s awareness-raising sessions, she became one of the key members of the Gender-Based Violence Watch Group.

“Thank you for informing us of the dangers of child marriage,” she says. “We won’t do the same with our daughters.”

Addressing child marriage before a crisis hits

Conflicts and climate change are unfortunately a reality for millions of women and girls. This project tackles the challenges that adolescent girls face. Yet they are consistently left behind in humanitarian efforts. We need to think about them not just when a crisis hits, but before that happens.

That is why national strategies targeting adolescent girls, such as the one that the Government of Nepal has developed but has yet to launch, are so important. They set the groundwork for a comprehensive, multi-sectoral response to child marriage which could improve the lives of girls today and for generations to come.

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