After the Earthquake: Lessons in Using Local Capacities to Protect Human Rights, from Community Workers in Nepal

Ginny Baumann

by Ginny Baumann

Ginny Baumann is Senior Program Officer at the Freedom Fund, responsible for work in India and Nepal.

In this blog, Ginny Baumann explains how the Freedom Fund worked with local Nepali organisations to learn how community-based NGO workers could be supported to protect human rights following the 2015 earthquakes, in line with Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) Commitment 3.

The Freedom Fund worked with three Nepali organisations* to learn how community-based NGO workers could be supported to protect human rights following the 2015 earthquakes.

We wanted not just to ensure that the humanitarian response strengthened local capacities, but also to see whether, in this context of extreme geographic isolation and risks of human rights abuses, protecting basic rights actually depended on local capacities. This is directly in line with Commitment 3 of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS): “Humanitarian response strengthens local capacities and avoids negative consequences”.

One NGO social worker’s testimony highlights both the need and the opportunity we were seeing on the ground in Nepal: “After the earthquake, people were living together in open places, which became a golden opportunity for traffickers. A person who was wanted by police for alleged human trafficking … was able to convince a 15-year-old girl for a better job in Kathmandu.

“The social worker at Baramchi came to know about this. She was trained on protection action by this research project. She quickly suspected trafficking, so she coordinated with a villager who was a retired police officer and helped the family to file an application in the local police post. Later on, Area Police Office of Bhaktapur arrested the trafficker and finally the girl was saved.”

The Freedom Fund’s action research project aimed to test whether, despite the obvious challenges, it was possible to bring together field staff of a range of local community-based NGOs to share information on the emerging human rights and protection issues they were seeing, as well as to increase their abilities to help residents to respond to the specific risks of trafficking, violence and exploitation during the crisis.

A participation revolution

At first the proposition seemed a bit doubtful and even unreasonable. In Sindhupalchok district 88% of houses were severely damaged or destroyed, and 56% of households had lost all their food stocks. In this context our three partner organisations were requesting community-based field workers, who were themselves homeless and potentially traumatised, to walk for miles over the hills and on dysfunctional roads to join a day-long workshop on protecting people against trafficking and violence. Although we held the workshops in three nearby locations to make them more accessible, it seemed unlikely that people would come, and if they did, then given everyone’s exhaustion and preoccupation, could anything useful be achieved?

In fact, 81 field workers attended and shared their knowledge of what was really happening in remote areas. At the workshop, they learned how to help people access government earthquake assistance, made plans for helping displaced people in camps watch out for traffickers and violence against women and children, and learned how to report such incidents. They suggested ways to boost people’s awareness of risks to children separated from parents or neglected due to caregivers’ struggle to survive. This is also in line with enacting Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) Commitment 4: “Communities and people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decisions that affect them.”

Offering vital protection

We had to wonder what it was really possible for the fieldworkers to do after the workshops. However, in follow-up interviews conducted by our partner NGOs with 33 of the participants, they reported gaps in the existing interventions, but perhaps importantly, significant activities they had personally undertaken:

  • Revitalising village child protection committees in over 30 places.
  • Serving as a contact person for reports on strangers or new agencies entering the camps, as well as acting on reports of children or young adults leaving the village in unsafe situations. (Reported by 16 participants).
  • Setting up lights and safer toilets for women and girls at camps. (Reported by 23 participants)
  • Helping communities reduce access to alcohol, and arranging regular police patrols.
  • Reaching 4000 people with awareness programmes about relief delivery and human rights.

Learning and recommendations for building local capacities during responses

An important finding (though only based on self-reporting) was that areas where there had been anti-trafficking and child protection activities before the disaster have been much more resilient to trafficking and violence.

The participants also stressed that it’s vital to integrate protection activities across all of the cluster activities (e.g. water, shelter, education, etc.) in order to detect problems and intervene. They said that all cluster interventions should use a protection checklist. They highlighted the difficulty for them to connect with the district-level clusters – which therefore lost out on their critical local knowledge.

We believe that the project is an important demonstration, showing that investing in community-based response to human rights protection issues should be central to humanitarian relief efforts.

To find out more about the recommendations from the local NGO workers involved, access the Freedom Fund report Understanding Vulnerabilities and Strengthening Response here.

*Swatantrata Abhiyan, Gramin Mahila Srijansil Parivar, Free the Slaves Nepal