Ram Maya Majhi is sitting quietly between a team of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and staff members at a gathering at Charikot's Female-Friendly Space (FFS) in Ramechhap, one of the districts hardest hit by this year's powerful earthquake in Nepal. Her silence and quiet manners convey the impression of an extreme shyness at first glance. She quickly opens up, however.
Ram Maya arrived at the female friendly space about 20 days ago. She was referred here via AWAZ, a local municipal cooperative which introduced her to Women's Rehabilitation Centre, UNFPA's partner responsible for the management of the space. And so far the match has proven mutually beneficial: the FFS provides her with meaningful tasks and supportive company, while Ram Maya gives generously her time, kindness, and child minding skills. On a day to day basis, she looks after the children of women who have come for shelter, psycho-social support, information on gender-based violence (GBV), legal advice or simply to be in the company of the FFS workers. In exchange for her patience, attention and efforts she receives a small stipend. Since her arrival she has been sharing her daily life and shelter with nine other women.
When seeing her dancing with the kids or monitoring their homework it is difficult to see what this young woman has been through. But observing how she is in the present and how she imagines her future, one understands immediately that a trauma is present, something she never talks about. Without ever referring to her personal life, her conversation often focuses on protection, women's rights and ending violence against women.
Ram Maya is one of the affected person who received support in one of 13 Female-Friendly Spaces supported by UNFPA through generous contributions of development partners including the Department for International Development (DFID), in the hardest hit districts after the Nepal earthquake. These safe spaces for women and girls are essential in emergency settings as they respond to an increase of gender-based violence incidents after a disaster has struck. It is widely recognized that vulnerable women and young girls are more likely to be abused in a climate of despair and loss, therefore providing protection and counseling are considered a top necessity. The services provided by a team of professionally trained staff focuses on support and advice, which are the foundations for empowerment, and consequently for a healthier recovery. Although the mission of Female-Friendly Spaces is to provide support for vulnerable women and girls, the real value of the services provided cannot easily be measured: it goes beyond specific services.
Aside from their core duties, the female friendly spaces offer various activities such as handcraft workshops or yoga sessions, even laughter or dance therapy. However FFSs are also social meeting spaces and some of them are primary residences to people like Ram Maya. These are affected people who have been exposed to a certain kind of aggression or abuse and are too scared to go back to the incident's location or can't even return because social and cultural reactions - shame, stigma, and ostracism - related to GBV mean they are often expelled from their family environments. In certain cases, life has been put on hold while waiting for legal proceedings to eventually come to an end that would allow them to return to their respective communities. In the meantime, residents of the FFS do their best to reproduce the comforts and social lives of a household within the center. Cooking and cleaning are entwined with daily activities and punctuated by women's visits or outreach for support. The center provides shelter and specific support but it also acts as a therapeutic vector in women's personal recovery. "By living here I feel I am part of a community, but it also allows me to interact with women who have experienced or are going through various issues, and therefore I learn and I understand", says Ram Maya.
It has been more than three months since the earthquake destroyed many lives, and the FFSs supported by UNFPA have seen over 6,000 in the first three months women and girls receiving services across 13 of the 14 most affected districts. Although originally intended for women affected by the earthquake, it is clear that a large proportion of the women arriving at the Female-Friendly Spaces are survivors of various forms of GBV committed before the earthquake - sometimes long before.
"Before the earthquake women had few avenues to deal with GBV related issues. Women simply didn't talk about those sensitive problems, not only because they were considered taboo but also because there was no one to talk to" says Ms. Laxmi Tamang, staff member at Manthali FFS. There were also few services. In most districts, the presence of FFSs compensate for the lack of social services focusing on violence against women and adolescent girls. Unfortunately, their time is limited. As the humanitarian response winds down, and financial aid runs out, UNFPA and other partners will be assessing how best to ensure the continuation of these much-needed services.
‘I don't know yet how long I will be able to live here, but as long as the FFS is working and everyone is happy with my services I want to stay here' says Ram Maya. Like Ram Maya, many women maintain a special bond with their FFS, and even if their future is blurred, they are grateful to have these spaces for now.