Almost six months on from the first earthquake in Nepal this year, there is still much to be done to get the country back on its feet. Over 9,200 people were killed and 26,500 injured were killed in total after the two quakes, with the lives of thousands of others changed forever. While the trauma of May and April continues for those in Nepal, the story has largely faded from mainstream media coverage. I spoke to Jeffrey Kottler, professor of counselling at California State University and founder of Empower Nepali Girls (ENG), about the situation in Nepal today.
ENG is an organisation originally established in 2001 to assist, educate and mentor young Nepali women at risk of being forced into early marriage or sex slavery. I begin by asking Kottler how he first decided to start up ENG. “I never intended to get involved in this work – it’s just that sometimes choices are made for us beyond our own control.
In this case, while doing research in remote villages in Nepal, I learned that girls were being trafficked across the border into India. That sounds absolutely horrible, but it is quite another thing when a particular girl was pointed out to me, who was going to be forced into sex slavery next. It was an impulsive gesture to offer money to the school principal to keep the girl safe, but then I learnt that the principal would likely keep the money unless I told him I would return to check on the girl. At the point, it felt like I had no other option except to return the following year. And the year after that. And each year since then we have grown from one girl to supporting over 300 in more than a dozen villages.”
Up until May, ENG scholarship recipients were provided with everything they needed to attend school and pursue careers in medicine, engineering, business and teaching. Inevitably, after the earthquakes, ENG had to dramatically change its mission and efforts. Dozens of scholarship girls lost their homes and six of the schools in the scheme were completely destroyed, with others suffering catastrophic damage. Where trails were ruined, villages have struggled to access safe water and food. “We received a lot of money in donations after the first earthquake in April, enough so that we could considerably expand our mission,” Kottler tells me. “We had a medical team on the ground, near the epicenter of the second earthquake (that occurred while we were there) before any government help arrived.”
Recent allegations made by the UN have claimed that the Nepali government slowed down the distribution of aid through customs and taxation. I ask what ENG was able to do and whether these limitations had affected their work. “If you’ve kept up on the news you would have noted that the government still has not released any of the money that has been donated by relief agencies or foreign assistance. We treated over 700 patients in just two weeks, all suffering major trauma and untreated wounds or infections. Since then, we have provided sanitation supplies, food, tents, water, and trauma counselling as the next stage. We operate under the radar as much as possible so our work is not sabotaged.
“When we return in December, it will be with the expectation that more serious infections will have spread because of all the dead bodies buried under rubble. Floods during the monsoon season have made things so much worse. Suicides have tripled in the last few months. And psychological trauma is rampant because the aftershocks still continue.”
While the immediate relief was not impeded by the authorities, ENG’s longer term plans for aid have not been unaffected by the bureaucracy. “The dysfunctional government so far has done nothing but block help from outside agencies,” Kottler says. “Now that we are trying to help schools rebuild their facilities, the government requires so much paperwork that it takes a long time to get their permission to do anything constructive.”
Despite the millions of pounds in aid donations from countries and non-profits around the world, the delay in its distribution means that much work still needs to be done on the ground, post-earthquake. “There are over 100,000 children who lost their homes. Many of our girls have lost everything, even hope for the future. We are doing our best to help them, and so many others, rebuild their lives. But, our budget and resources are limited. And, the Nepali government makes things very difficult to lend assistance.”
Kottler tells me more about their plans for the return trip in December. “We are now organizing an event to bring all our children together so we can provide needed support, mentoring, and resources. We are also distributing materials related to symptoms and treatment of post-traumatic stress, as well providing ongoing counseling and support.”
If anything, the situation highlights the importance of knowing how your donations will be used. Organisations like ENG are able to operate at ground level, bringing their resources with them. While the foreign aid will trickle down in some form in due course, for families in Nepal, basic food, shelter and psychological healing are essential to get them back on their feet as soon as possible. Ensuring your money is used well could if fact – in this case – be just as valuable as the size of your donation.
You can donate the ENG earthquake appeal here.