By Rina Chandran
KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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 900,000 homes damaged and destroyed, about a quarter belonged to female-headed households. More than 500,000 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 100,000 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.
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 categorization of single women - estimated by the charity to number 500,000 - 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.
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.
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.
"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?" Thapa said.
"There is a lot of social pressure on widows, on single women to observe rituals, to stay home, to remain dependent on men," said Thapa, a widow herself.
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 programs 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.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)