Nepal Quake Impact on Single Women Shows Need for Property Rights

A woman’s right activist presses for the need of equal land ownership rights for women.

3 min read
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Last year’s twin earthquakes in Nepal disproportionately affected single women, underlining the need for equal land ownership to increase their resilience in disasters, a women’s rights activist has said.

Of the more than 9,00,000 homes damaged and destroyed, about a quarter belonged to female-headed households. More than 5,00,000 women and girls were displaced and about 2,000 women were widowed, according to official data.

“The deep gender inequality in Nepal meant that women, and single women in particular, suffered most in the aftermath of the earthquakes,” said Lily Thapa, founder of Women for Human Rights (WHR), a group campaigning for single women’s rights with about 1,00,000 members.

“They could not make themselves heard and they received the least assistance, which left many vulnerable to abuse, trafficking and harassment,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kathmandu.

A woman’s right activist presses for the need of  equal land ownership rights for women.
Woman walking through the ruins of a street in Bhaktapur after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck on 25 April 2015. (Photo: iStock)

While the 2015 constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender and established equal property rights, a deep-rooted patriarchy still denies these rights to women, and to single women in particular.

Nepal’s categorisation of single women — estimated by the charity to be 5,00,000 — includes those who are widowed, those who are unmarried above the age of 35, and those who are divorced.

Early marriage, with 37 percent of Nepali women married before the age of 18, increases their vulnerability, Thapa said.

The migration of millions of young Nepali men overseas to find jobs has also led to an increase in female-headed households to 26 percent in 2011 from 15 percent in 2001, according to census data.

While women’s ownership of land and property has improved in recent years, women are still much less likely to inherit land, to have land registered in their name, or possess documentation that supports their claim, Thapa said.

A woman’s right activist presses for the need of  equal land ownership rights for women.
A village in Nepal in ruins after the earthquake. (Photo: iStock)

Female ownership of land and/or property stood at 20 percent in 2011 compared with 12 percent in 2001. In rural areas, it is 18 percent compared with 27 percent in urban areas.

Temporary Shelters

The quakes that struck last April and May killed 9,000 people and injured at least 22,000 in the Himalayan nation.

Nearly a quarter of the 495 single women-headed households surveyed by WHR and Oxfam after the disaster said they had lost their property papers, and nearly half had lost their citizenship certificates.

Many women have never had citizenship papers, marriage certificates or even birth certificates. Getting documentation can be daunting for single women, as large numbers are illiterate, Thapa said.

After the quakes, these challenges were thrown into sharp relief as single women had to repair or rebuild their homes and care for the family. Many were unable to seek assistance.

When WHR surveyed women several months after the quakes, more female-headed households than male-headed households were still in camps, Thapa said, a widow herself.

A woman’s right activist presses for the need of  equal land ownership rights for women.
Young girl looked after her grandmother in Ramche Village, Nepal after it was devastated by the Nepal Earthquake. (Photo: iStock)
Women who were widowed in the quakes, for example, had to observe the mourning rituals for a year — staying indoors, not going into crowds. How could they go get relief or get new papers? There is a lot of social pressure on widows, on single women to observe rituals, to stay home, to remain dependent on men.

Nepal appointed its first female president last year and its first female chief justice earlier this year, in signs that the country is becoming increasingly inclusive, following the end of 10 years of civil war in 2006.

WHR is lobbying the government to include single women in the planning and implementation of disaster preparedness, response and recovery programmes and resettlement plans.

It is also asking the government to ensure that joint land ownership registration is made mandatory for married couples, and to promote women’s registration on other forms of land documentation.

“Strengthening single women’s asset ownership is key to reducing their vulnerability to disasters and boosting their resilience,” Thapa said.

(This article was published in an arrangement with the Reuters.)

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Topics:  marriage    Nepal   Woman  

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