Parallel circuits

As we rebuild homes, can we dismantle gender norms?

A group of women sit on a foam mattress in a room surrounded by corrugated iron sheets for walls. The room is a makeshift classroom set up in the fringes of Chautara, Sindhupalchok, to teach these women the skills needed to work as electricians. Their teacher, deployed by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, writes on a white board the lesson for that hour: series and parallel circuits.

Right outside in the open is another classroom, with sheets of tarpaulin for a roof. Here, another group of women wield wrenches and try to fit steel pipes together. By the end of their training period, these women will have learned the basics of plumbing required to install a functioning bathroom in their houses.

Like thousands of others in the district, the women lost their houses to the Great Quake of April 25. The government wants them to reconstruct these houses and contribute to the rebuilding efforts. The women too want to get back on their feet, but they also want to parlay the skills acquired into find a job later. But while these training programmes will help a little, they alone cannot level the playing field. The earthquake shook the physical structures into rubble, but the gender structures remain intact.

When Asha Rani Lama heard about the plumbing classes and expressed interest in taking part in them, her family was against the idea. Their house in Golchhe collapsed during the quake and they are currently living in a tent in Tundikhel, an open space in the middle of Chautara Bazaar. But no one thought that she could help rebuild their house. They told her that she need not acquire the skills set aside for men. That she should leave the tough, manual labour to men. But like the rest of the women in her class, she wants work, to maybe one day open a shop that sells plumbing tools.

Twenty-six-year-old Devi Maya Bhandari too wants to find a job as an electrician after the training concludes. Her husband used to be an electrician but he died of an electric shock while working on a pylon five years ago. Gossip about her character started right away, so much so that she eventually took her then two-year-old daughter and moved out of her husband’s house in Mankha to her parents’ in Phulpingkot. Even now, the talks continue whenever a man offers a helping hand, either in the fields or in the house.

Her trainer, Gam Bahadur Chhetri, says that women, who make up 50 percent of the students in his class, seem more driven, but being a confident electrician will take at least a month of internship after the classes end.

“After we are done here, if they go around the villages working as an assistant to a professional electrician, they will learn the tricks of the trade more quickly and will be able to wire their houses easily,” says Chhetri. But the stories of both Lama and Bhandari show how difficult it will be for women to avoid the watchful eyes of their villagers.

Additionally, even if these women manage to fight their family members and neighbours and become a confident electrician or a plumber, they know they will struggle to amass the capital needed to kickstart a business. Prabina BK, who once took a two-month long JTA (Junior Technical Assistant) courses run by the CTEVT (Council for the Technical Education and Vocational Training), says that the training was in vain because family members backed off when it came to investing in her business.

“‘Do you want to spend all that we have?’ they said,” says BK. For a lot of households, sending a woman to work means losing someone who would cook and clean up.

The Ministry of Labour currently runs electrical and plumbing classes, each 390 hours long, in five of the worst earthquake-hit districts: Nuwakot, Dhading, Dolakha, Gorkha and Sindhupalchok. It also runs one carpentry class in Sindhupalchok. In order to lure students and keep them attending the classes every day, it pays them Rs 100 each in daily allowance. It wanted to expand this effort and reach 3,000 more people in earthquake-affected districts by the end of the fiscal year. These 3,000 people will learn the basics of electrical work, plumbing, masonry and carpentry—skills useful in building a house in a village. And the government wants to attract as many women as possible to these training programmes.

But as Govinda Bhurtel, the executive Director of the Centre for Vocational and Skill Development Training, which manages these classes, says, while young men often take these training courses in the hopes of landing a job in the Gulf countries and Malaysia later—a reason why the classes on masonry and carpentry did not take off this time—women struggle to find a job right here. A lot of women in the classes in session in Chautara have had different kinds of training before. Some have taken courses to become a beautician, some have learned to embellish pieces of cloth with sequins and some have learned to weave Dhaka fabric. But none of them are currently employed. The gender-unequal society eventually defeats them.

As demonstrated by the budget announcement on Tuesday, the priority for the government right now is to help get the nation back on track. But while this goal is admirable—it hopes to train at least 50,000 people in the affected districts—it must help the women it trains to fight gender-based discrimination along the way. Or else all that money and energy it spends in getting the women out of their houses into training camps will go to waste.

Published on 2015-07-18, The Kathmandu Post