January 23, 2017

By Ashley C. Thompson (MDes R&R 2017) | To access the full report, please click here.

This winter session January 2017, with support from the Harvard South Asia Institute, I returned to Nepal to explore women’s rights at the intersection of land and disaster – a research agenda that developed in response to previous fieldwork conducted in January 2016 on humanitarian aid strategies for innovation and resilience through local partnership engagement[1], in particular partnerships rooted in gender equity and social inclusion. Then and now, I seek to explicate the complex challenges and opportunities for women as equal partners within structures and systems that simultaneously claim to be their advocates, yet maintain their excluded – and inferior – position. Through the analysis and actualization of gender equity, the research aims to build more innovative and resilient individuals, household, and communities that are better prepared to face an ever-increasingly complex 21st century of rapid globalization and urbanization and the impacts therein. Rooted in the institutionalized access and control of land and its denial – particularly in the developing world, where land is one of the most fundamental units of security (physical, economic, psychological, and on) – two key questions launched and guided this year’s exploratory fieldwork:

  1. How does the intersection of land and women’s rights implicate disaster recovery and resilience?
  2. If we understand crisis as an opportunity for social restructuring, what expanded opportunities do or could exist for women in post-earthquake Nepal.

Based in Lalitpur, I met with key stakeholders, primarily women and organizations that work on their behalf (split between urban and rural programs however all operating from the Kathmandu Valley as is standard), and also conducted one site visit to meet with rural women in Sindhupalchok, one of the districts hardest hit by the earthquakes and an area that I visited 12 months prior, thus a benchmark to compare the progress and mid-term outcomes of reconstruction. Nepal’s political instability is well known and ongoing, and (the lack of) reconstruction across these communities is just one reflection of this division. Within the community I visited in the morning, Gairathok, only two of 52 households have rebuilt permanent homes while all others remain in temporary shelters, predominantly one-story metal-paneled walls on wooden frames. Inquiring as to their situation, the women cited the cost of reconstruction as prohibitive, particularly as these are funds that should pay out in the form of reconstruction grants from the National Reconstruction Authority. It costs Rs300,000 – Rs400,000 NPR (roughly $2,500 – $3,500 USD) to rebuild a permanent, multi-story, and now earthquake-resistant (i.e. reinforced concrete) home. While this was not an all-female community and in fact their husbands (the majority of whom returned home from labor contracts in the Gulf shortly after the earthquakes) were never out of earshot of our conversation and at times would jump in between my question and the translation (they understood English while their wives did not) – not surprisingly, both of the households able to rebuild did so by the strength of Nepal’s remittance economy. In the one case, the husband has been in the Gulf States working for the past 5 years although he is soon returning into his retirement; for that duration, his wife has managed the complete reconstruction of their home in his absence (and all else) and also is one of the few female landowners in the community. In the second household, the husband was departing for his next multi-year contract the following Monday, leaving his wife to manage not just their dually young and old family, but also the small shop she had convinced him to build into the ground level of their new home. This last revelation, which she was evidently extremely proud of, was only revealed in private apart from the other women and after several hours on site.

Through my two rounds of field research in Nepal, it is clear to me that any understanding of gender as implicated by relief, recovery, reconstruction, and development as this framework might offer, demands a more robust and iterative exploration through fieldwork of the role and power of gender embedded across the array of legal, political, economic, and social power structures. Land and land-based issues serve as a foundation, but the issues quickly extend across scales and sectors. As explicated in my report[2], the structural nature and extent of women’s oppression in society implicates program areas across the humanitarian and development agenda such as education, healthcare, citizenship, land tenure and property ownership, livelihood and much more. Thus, in order to advance women’s rights, any intervention must under­stand and target underlying issues, many of them obscured by networks of laws, policies and practices that contribute to maintaining women’s structurally marginal status. Such a framing then erodes the standardization of specific issues as ‘women’s issues,’ where in fact women’s issues must be expanded as a driving consideration across every humanitarian and development program. Increasingly aligned with funding and thus program development and execution, the Gender Equity and Social Inclusion (GESI) construct relied on by aid and development as stands is too often limited to childbearing, rearing, female healthcare and similarly female-only programs that reinforce gender essentialist roles as a functional and theoretical limitation of what is or is not a women’s program. In this way, the primacy of only-female programs serves as an erroneous proxy for women’s issues more broadly and obfuscates the criticality of integrating women’s issues in every sector. However, with proactive and reflexive programming where women are included in every role and at every level, to include leadership, it’s also clear that women’s empowerment programs can and do make a huge impact in providing authentic and equitable opportunities for girls and women, and have the potential to be transformational in shaping her expanded role and position while simultaneously being socially and culturally accepted.

To be certain, I recognize that the challenges of working not just for (which I reject), but with women as partners in order to collectively achieve women’s equity at large are immense – perhaps more so for a feminist researcher, which is increasingly how I position my approach. While various definitions of feminist methods exist and continue to evolve within social science, for me such positionality primarily connotes my accountability to power structures – both those that I am subject to as well as those within which I operate; a dedication to pursue and advance social justice on behalf of all, particularly to individuals and groups who have been historically (and more often then not, continue to be) marginalized; and lastly, in establishing both the purpose of social justice and for whom that justice serves, a commitment to working collaboratively in order to co-create where possible, but validate and seek feedback always. Within these guides, the ethical commitments and responsibilities required to operationalize such a theoretical framework into practice is in my experience, a near endless exercise of constant exchange, critical consciousness, adaptation, and learning. Reflecting on my field visits to Sindhupalchok where I met with two groups of women from two different villages, their diversity was only apparent to me upon arrival, but surely could have been anticipated, where the first group of women was of much high-power status than the second. Particularly relative to my previous experiences meeting women in Nepal, the difference was striking, and obvious to me that a single-survey encounter was exceptionally insufficient to communicate with these more-marginalized indigenous women about their daily realities. An ethnic group known as the Majhi, these women faced challenges that far exceeded their gender but also demanded account of caste, class, religion, education and so much more. Reflecting on the power of narrative, particularly acknowledging my own role as researcher as that of the dominant actor, I prepared the following two very different accounts of the encounter:


A Majhi Woman in Bhimtar, Sindhupalchok | Jan 2017

What I could say:

A shy but friendly Majhi woman in front of the temporary shelter that has been her home for the past 18 months, and surely will be for many more, in Bhimtar, Sindupalchowk. The Majhi are an indigenous river peoples in Nepal, and just a few hundred meters from these metal sheds, their riverside village was flattened by the 2015 earthquakes. And yet, the Majhi have been suffering for much longer – their life and livelihood increasingly threatened, not-so-slowly being eradicated by the territorial operationalization and dominion that comes with development and urbanization at huge cost to their rivers, the environment: construction, bridging, and hydroelectric damming projects. As a result, their culture and knowledge devalued, the Majhi are one of the most marginalized peoples in Nepal: low-class, poor, and uneducated.

What I should also say:

I spoke with a group of Majhi women in their community for about an hour. Questions that I had for them – about women’s equity and inclusion regarding their land, their homes, their opportunities – were quasi-translated back and forth by a Community Outreach Coordinator from an International NGO that is implementing a reconstruction pilot project and training center designated to serve this village among others. We arrived by 4×4 in the middle of a hot day: one driver, two Nepali INGO staff, and myself: a white foreign woman with a notebook and a camera. After some minutes of walking amongst the temporary metal shelters, one woman agreed to speak with us and she caroused one other elderly woman to do so as well. As we started, more women gathered. It was dusty and quiet, except every few minutes when a construction truck hauling material from the riverbed rumbled through the middle of their community – every time, the women casting a hand to their small children, nudging them back from the road – every time exhaust and dust thrown up into our faces and into their doorways. And while these women did answer my questions in a quiet but friendly way, I am painfully aware of how much I failed them. I had an overwhelming amount of power, authority, status, and privilege – they were speaking with me, because they felt like they must – offering me responses that were obvious to all, at least as presented to a stranger. Nearly every response: Do you own land? Do you own property? Do you know any woman who owns land or property? Do you want to own land or property? was “it does not exist”… a litany of “chaina”s, no translation needed. It was the most ‘othering’ experience I’ve ever had with any Nepali person – a people who I’ve come to identify as one of the warmest, friendliest, most open peoples to travelers across a lifetime of traveling. Very little talk among themselves, very little laughter, very little story telling. At the end of what was not so long, me skipping questions that seemed entirely useless to us all, I closed by asking if they had any questions for me, as I always do. They only had one, something I’ve heard many times before, but which has never struck me so hard. They asked what I could do for them? What support could I offer them? Could I provide them with anything, anything at all? I did my best to re-explain my research  – as translated – all the while agreeing with them… what was my role here, how could I possibly expect to understand their lives, let alone how my research might make a difference that may serve them in the far future. Casting, I asked them what was most important to them, if they could have anything to improve their lives – what would it be? They told me they wanted skills. This is heart-breakingly possible. Was something valuable exchanged, certainly, but for whom? If I end up only helping myself, then I’ve helped no one.

This experience is a good one to hold onto, one that I must learn from. Echoing the sentiment of the many feminist researchers who have preceded me: “my hope is that I will get it more right than the last time…”[3]

Having traveled the world over, Nepal is a country that I feel an affinity to like none other that I have yet to know. It is an exceptional country in countless ways, not only the stunning landscapes that span from subtropical forest to the tallest peaks on our Earth, but also the richness and warmth of the diversity of peoples and cultures. I am certain that I will be returning for many more years to come, not only to continue working with women (and men) in order to advance women’s equity and inclusion in aid and development, but also to continue exploring a country whose mountains and people speak so directly to my soul in such exaltation.

A View of Machhapuchhre from Annapurna Base Camp | Dec 2016


Ashley C. Thompson received her professional Bachelor of Architecture from Rice University in Houston, Texas, and is currently a Master in Design Studies in Risk and Resilience Candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her ongoing research intersecting women’s equity and inclusion with land and disaster builds on fieldwork conducted January 2016 on strategies for innovation and resilience through local partnership engagement and gender equity and social inclusion. Hosted by the Nepal Innovation Lab’s Explore Ideas Program, her in-country research has been made possible with support from the Harvard Asia Center and most recently, from the Harvard South Asia Institute.

[1] Henceroth, J. & Thompson, A. Innovation Lab. 2015.

[2] Thompson, A. Gendered Relational Risk Geographies, a World of Women Villages. 2017.

[3] (Reid, C., & Frisby, W. (2008). Continuing the journey: Articulating dimensions of feminist participatory action research (FPAR). Sage handbook of action research: Participative inquiry and practice, 2, 93-105.