Lives without men: Stories of women living in Mahakali river basin
In a village close to the transboundary Mahakali river, a pregnant woman awaits news of remittance from her husband working abroadMinket Lepcha

Lives without men: Stories of women living in Mahakali river basin

A photographic account of lives of women in trans-boundary Mahakali river basin along Nepal border as their men migrate in search of work. Second part of a series

Shiva and Parvati are epitomised in Hinduism as the joint protectors of the Himalayas. But men are conspicuously absent from the villages and towns on the banks of the Mahakali – the transboundary river that marks the western border of Nepal with India.

In village after village, you see only women, children and old people. A UN report, World Population Prospects, 2019 said that in 2019 the net migration rate for Nepal was 2.203 per 1,000 people, a 48.25% increase from 2018.

The women cope, with increasing confidence.

A woman who has to go to town for the remittance money her husband has sent wraps her child in her shawl as she waits for transport; the other would-be passenger is a retired soldier
A woman who has to go to town for the remittance money her husband has sent wraps her child in her shawl as she waits for transport; the other would-be passenger is a retired soldierMinket Lepcha
In most homes around the transboundary Mahakali River and its tributaries, you meet only women, children and the elderly
In most homes around the transboundary Mahakali River and its tributaries, you meet only women, children and the elderlyMinket Lepcha

The gateway welcoming you to this village in Dadeldhura region of the Mahakali River basin has statues of Shiva and Parvati on top. A woman who has to go to town for the remittance money her husband has sent wraps her child in her shawl as she waits for transport; the other would-be passenger is a retired soldier.

Most of the men travel to other countries in search of jobs, a trend that has been accelerated by the impacts of climate change – agriculture has been badly impacted by flash floods and land erosion that have become more frequent and more severe. Traditionally smallholder agriculture was the main source of livelihood in this region.

A man leaves his village
A man leaves his villageMinket Lepcha

Now families are critically dependent on remittances wired from abroad. It is common for women living in remote Darchula, Baitadi and Dadeldhura regions to travel overnight to get the money wired to them. Mobile phones have become an absolute necessity – without it, they do not know when the money has been wired. And it is the only way to stay in touch with a husband, a father, a brother.

Mobile phones are lifelines
Mobile phones are lifelinesMinket Lepcha
A woman runs a fruit stall in front of an advertisement for a remittance delivery firm
A woman runs a fruit stall in front of an advertisement for a remittance delivery firmMinket Lepcha
The shepherds are women, sometimes accompanied by children
The shepherds are women, sometimes accompanied by childrenMinket Lepcha
Women carry firewood through the snow  
Women carry firewood through the snow  Minket Lepcha
Women from riverside villages work as daily wage labourers, quarrying stones and sieving sand from the riverbed  
Women from riverside villages work as daily wage labourers, quarrying stones and sieving sand from the riverbed  Minket Lepcha
In a village close to the transboundary Mahakali river, a pregnant woman awaits news of remittance from her husband working abroad
How women of Mahakali along Nepal border are finding their voices
Women and girls spend hours every day, clambering down steep hillsides to fetch water from the river, and then walking up with laden vessels
Women and girls spend hours every day, clambering down steep hillsides to fetch water from the river, and then walking up with laden vesselsMinket Lepcha
Almost invariably, the farmers are women  
Almost invariably, the farmers are women  Minket Lepcha
Women walk home with fodder
Women walk home with fodderMinket Lepcha
Even when a man is at home, he may not be of much help, due to deep-rooted male prejudices that say all household work is to be done by women  
Even when a man is at home, he may not be of much help, due to deep-rooted male prejudices that say all household work is to be done by women  Minket Lepcha
A group of young men on their way to play cricket, a common sight in most of South Asia, but a rare sight in the Mahakali basin
A group of young men on their way to play cricket, a common sight in most of South Asia, but a rare sight in the Mahakali basinMinket Lepcha
Children are the only regular companions the women have
Children are the only regular companions the women haveMinket Lepcha

For most of the time, women find various ways to earn money as well as carry out all household and farm work.

Meanwhile, the women have to keep their farms going and look after their families, mostly children and old people. They do this in an era of increasing flash floods, landslides, bank erosion, water contamination and debris flow.

Grethel Aguilar, acting director general of IUCN, writes in a recent study, “The damage humanity is inflicting on nature can also fuel violence against women around the world – a link that has so far been largely overlooked.” As shown in the first report in this series, the women of the Mahakali basin are fighting back to take charge of their lives.

A grandfather helps out as a babysitter while a Women’s Empowerment Committee meeting gets underway in a village in the Mahakali basin
A grandfather helps out as a babysitter while a Women’s Empowerment Committee meeting gets underway in a village in the Mahakali basinMinket Lepcha
A Women’s Empowerment Committee meeting on the Mahakali riverbed
A Women’s Empowerment Committee meeting on the Mahakali riverbedMinket Lepcha

(This is the second of a series of reports on the Mahakali basin. See the first: How women of Mahakali along Nepal border are finding their voices)

This work was supported by The Third Pole-Oxfam Shared Water Media Grants as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project funded by the Government of Sweden. Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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