The women connecting NepalFrom Mechi to Mahakali (and rivers in between) women engineers overcome hurdles to make Nepal more accessible
Growing up in Jhapa, Sabita Giri often had to cross over to India with her family to buy daily goods and essentials. On one such trip, she overheard some people talking about how the bridge across the Mechi River was “dying”.
As a sixth grader, she wondered what made bridges “die”. It was only when she came to Kathmandu for higher studies and became a civil engineer that she realised that bridges indeed have a life expectancy.
Today, Giri is among 21 trainee engineers working on the Motorable Local Roads Bridge (MLRB) Program that aims to connect Nepal’s roads with bridges across the country’s mainly north-south rivers.
“When I was young, all I knew as a career choice was completing a PhD and working as a teacher. Becoming a civil engineer has opened a whole host of possibilities,” says Giri, who is stationed at MLRB in Hetauda.
An average rural road in Nepal needs a bridge across a river every 15km, and this is not counting culverts and drainage overpasses. Although there are now roads almost everywhere, the lack of bridges means large parts of the country are inaccessible during the monsoon.
Giri and her colleagues provide the much-needed technical expertise to design and construct safer, more accessible bridges throughout Nepal.
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Over the last two decades, the government worked on expanding both the Local Road Network (LRN) and Strategic Road Network (SRN). These have now been reclassified as national highways, provincial highways and local roads by Constitution of Nepal 2015. While most national highways are now all-weather, provincial highways and local roads remain largely unpaved and are fair-weather.
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) initiated MLRB program in 2011 in response to a request from the Nepal government, and it is a logical extension of Swiss technical assistance in designing and building nearly 10,000 trail bridges across Nepal since the 1970s.
After 2015, national highways fell under the purview of the federal government while many of the 25,728km roads previously identified as district roads were the responsibility of provincial governments.
These provincial roads needed 1,720 bridges to make them all-weather, but the provinces lacked institutions, legal frameworks, and technical capacity to deliver.
The government approached the Swiss, and the initiative continued.SDC had started an internship program for female civil engineers in 2008, with six women engineers recruited in the first cohort to work in the District Road Support Program (DSRP).
This internship program has continued and grown since with women engineers working on various infrastructure projects across the country.
“During the nine-month traineeship, engineers learn and are involved in a whole cycle of bridge building: survey, design, investigation and construction,” explains Aman Jonchhe at SDC.
For the first month, the engineers are trained in technical aspects, designs as well as constitutional provisions and management skills. Then they gain first-hand experience working on trail bridges as well as motorable bridges.
This year, 31 female civil engineers have been enrolled in the traineeship program in Swiss-funded projects: 21 in motorable bridges and 10 in small-scale irrigation.
So far, 82 women engineers have worked on various infrastructure programs including DSRP, MLRB and irrigation.
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“The best team must be as diverse as the society it works in. Diversity is proven to generate more innovative, creative, and inclusive decisions and better performing teams,” says Elisabeth von Capeller, the Swiss Ambassador to Nepal. “We need to change the mindset of society, challenge gender stereotypes, and do a better job of showing, supporting, and promoting diversity.”
As of July 2019, with technical support from the MLRB program, the government constructed 358 motorable bridges, making an additional 4,895km of local roads accessible throughout the year.
Says Ambassador von Capeller, “Attracting and supporting more women in engineering benefits everyone by increasing the potential to develop inclusive, innovative solutions for the complex problems the world is facing.”
Bigyata Sitoula (pictured above) was in the first cohort of trainee women engineers to work on the motorable local bridge program. She joined the traineeship in 2013 right after graduating with a degree in civil engineering and today heads the team in Karnali Province as Project Coordinator.
Sitoula is from Tehrathum and is no stranger to the hardships posed by lack of access in the mountains. When she was young, a trip to her hometown from Kathmandu meant days of walking. The bus would take her family to Basantapur from where the district headquarters was a day’s trek. From there it took two more days of walking to reach her village of Chuhandanda. With a new road, the trip is much shorter today.
Having motorable bridges contributes to better access to health, education, and economic opportunities, especially for women who often have to travel long distances to fetch water, firewood, or during childbirth and health emergencies, which can be life-threatening.
In fact, the spread of Nepal’s road network has been a factor in bringing down the country’s maternal mortality rate dramatically through an increase in institutional deliveries.
Although Bigyata Sitoula has not had the opportunity to work on bridges in her own Tehrathum, she has been to almost all the districts in Karnali Province designing and building bridges. One of her work trips took her to parts of Jajarkot, where the roads were yet to be connected via motorable bridges.
“We had to cross a suspension trail bridge then change vehicles, then get off and cross another suspension bridge and then get on another vehicle numerous times during the entire trip,” says Sitoula. “It was one of the more challenging areas I have been to, and it showed the problems we faced.”
Sitoula says her main motivation is the realisation of how much a bridge helps local people. In Jumla where a bridge joining the district to Mugu is under-construction, villagers crowded around her team to urge them to work faster.
“They were excited about the possibilities of trade, shorter travel time and because the bridge would help women in their daily chores or to get to a health post,” says Sitoula.
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There have been challenges. Some of it is geographical and some more socio-cultural. Female civil engineers have had to deal with the patriarchal mindset of local people and other stakeholders.
“When I first started as a trainee, people were skeptical that a woman could be an engineer,” recalls Sitoula. “That attitude has changed to some extent, and I have now grown more confident in myself and my work. But even now, there are times when people are doubtful about my qualifications and experience just because I am a woman.”
Nepal ranks among the countries with the lowest female representation in senior and middle management roles. According to the World Bank, in 2017, although the female labour force participation rate in Nepal was 78.7%, only 13.9% of women held jobs in management positions.
“Maybe because the number of female civil engineers is still lower compared to men, the discrimination persists,” adds Sayara Bhujel, a civil engineer completing her traineeship in Bagmati Province.
Women engineers also often have to deal with being undermined and ignored. Even when men in the same or similar position are addressed as ‘Sir’, women are called ‘Nani’ and ‘Baini.’ In the field, most queries are directed at the men, even if it is women leading the project.
“There are times when contractors and labourers don’t take us seriously and resort to teasing us,” says Radha Yadav, who is also completing her traineeship in Hetauda. Some others have also had to deal with casteist remarks.
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But it is not just the professional environment where they face discrimination, it starts in college. “As a student, I had to speak up and asked to be included in lab work and other tasks like data recording, since boys were given more priority,” recalls another engineer, Nisha Lama. “Some teachers also discriminated against girls.”
The female engineers we spoke with said they have taken all this in their stride, and have learnt to navigate, create, and claim spaces for themselves in the profession and society.
When questioned about their technical designs or expertise, they all said they let their work speak for themselves.
Says Bigyata Sitoula: “Being in a leadership position is a challenge and an opportunity to change the opinion of society and to create a safe space for the next generation of women coming into the workforce.”
Coming from a community that does not usually give enough importance to the education of girl children, Radha Yadav believes she can serve as an example of what women can do if they are given equal opportunities. She says fair compensation for work and a good support system at home also help.
“I am here because my father is a principal at a school and understood that girls have to be educated, and he encouraged me to realise my potential,” says Yadav.
During one of her initial deployments in Surkhet, Sitoula got into an argument with a contractor when she pointed out that the plan for support work on an under construction bridge had problems. The design was eventually revised.
“I could do that because my supervisor at the time gave me the authority to speak up,” she says. “The more representation we have in the workforce and the more people get used to seeing women in public spaces and professional environments, the easier it will become to gain the trust of the society.”
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