The impact of Nepal’s fuel crisis on women and children

The impact of Nepal’s fuel crisis on women and children
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The fuel crisis in Nepal is adding more to a Nepali woman’s load, both physically and mentally. Richa Pokhrel, co-founder and editor of the blog Nepali Chhori, provides this guest analysis. 

It’s been more than three months since the fuel crisis and blockade started in Nepal. The unveiling of a new constitution in late September sparked tensions between the Madhesi ethnic group and the government. The Madhesi and Tharu people, who account for many of the southern residents of Nepal, have been protesting their lack of inclusion in the new governing framework.

The Nepali government believes that the Madhesis are being supported by their Indian counterparts to block essential fuel and supplies from getting into the country. The Indian government denies these allegations. The amount of damage and economic loss increases as this crisis continues with no end in sight. Both the government and the Madhesis seem unable to come to a compromise.

Crisis comes at an inopportune time for Nepal

For the two last decades, there has been a steady increase in imports and sales of petrol, diesel, kerosene, and other petroleum-based products. With the current fuel crisis, the country is running on 1/10th of its normal fuel consumption. The demand for petrol, cooking, medicines, and other crucial items is high; however, supply is low. This has increased the price of these essential items. 

In the capital, Kathmandu, lines to get petrol and cooking fuel span many miles with no guarantee that everyone in line will receive something. Many have turned to the black market to acquire supplies, though at increasingly inflated prices.

All of daily life has been affected for almost everyone. Cooking fuel has become so scarce that hospitals and other institutions are looking for other ways to make food. Some schools haven’t been open in several months, as they cannot feed their students. Individual households are also struggling to cook meals for their families. In the urban areas, people use cooking gas they get from cylinders to cook for the families. A single gas cylinder lasts for approximately a month and a half.

However, with limited supplies, families have had to adopt others ways to make ends meet. Cooking with firewood has increased in urban areas, further threatening Nepal’s forests. People who can afford them are buying electric hot plates, rice cookers, and microwaves to aid in daily cooking, but lack of continual electricity also poses a problem as the country moves beyond the monsoon months.

Others are making improvised stoves using bricks. Even before this crisis, one-fourth of Nepal’s 28 million residents live at, or below, the poverty line, and are therefore particularly vulnerable to scarcities in essential goods.

Risks are particularly high for Nepal’s women and children

During times of crisis (i.e. natural disaster, economic downturn), women and children are most at risk. Women who are already in charge of many duties including field work, child care, collecting water, other household chores are now spending more time looking for firewood and standing in long lines for cooking gas. This fuel crisis is adding more to a Nepali woman’s load, both physically and mentally.

When the use of indoor firewood and charcoal consumption increases, there is high risk of indoor air pollution, which leads to a host of health risks, putting women and children most at risk. In 2012, it was estimated that 7,500 people die annually in Nepal from indoor pollution, most of these victims being women and children. Indoor air pollution can cause pneumonia, respiratory infections, lung cancer, stroke, and other things.

In addition, there are a host of other ill effects that will harm women and children. UNICEF warns that millions of children and newborns are at risk of hypothermia and malnutrition in the upcoming winter months. With the blockade, earthquake rebuilding has been halted, as materials are unable to reach the most affected areas. Thousands of families are still living in temporary shelters, ones that do not protect from the cold or other weather changes.

Also, gender based violence will likely increase because of the many instabilities and vulnerabilities, particularly for poor women. As prices increases and incomes stay stagnant or decline, frustrations arise in families, causing violence to escalate.

After the April earthquake, it was reported that more Nepali women and girls were being trafficked in promise of good jobs to the Middle East. According to research done by the Nepali government, violence against women is prevalent: half of Nepali women who participated in the survey experienced some form (physical, emotional, verbal) of abuse in their lifetimes. In a patriarchal society like this one, women are at more risk because of the cultural norms and acceptance of violence. 

Nepal could face another crisis if the blockade is not resolved. With winter fast approaching, hypothermia, malnutrition, health risks, and gender based violence are all likely to increase, and the country could face a national health crisis. The Nepali government and the Madhesis need to come to a compromise so the people of Nepal can get back to rebuilding their lives and rebuilding the country. 

Richa Pokhrel is a non-profit professional who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs with a Masters in International Development.  During the month of November, she spent one month in Nepal. She is the co-founder and editor of Nepali Chhori, a blog dedicated to discussing Nepali women’s issues.

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