They look a bit incongruous close to this bridge under construction, two young women in the midst of all these men. Engineers from the province, from the contractor, site superintendents, workers from India, and locals who come out of curiosity. Two young women in a very male world. But they don't give up. Lanka and Nabina are used to it. They check the plans, observe the structure, take measurements, ask questions. They are also engineers. Two civil engineers, specialists in motorable bridges.
Both are 28 years old. They met during their bachelor's degree in civil engineering in Kathmandu. These studies are quite unusual for girls in Nepal, as in so many other countries. "After my SLC (school leaving certificate, after Class 12), I thought like my friends that I would study nursing, or management, or psychology, these studies typically assigned to girls in Nepal" explains Lanka. "But my maternal uncle was an engineer and he encouraged me to study the same." In their engineering college, 20% of bachelor students were girls, as the number of girls studying science in the country is increasing significantly. "What doesn't change much, however, is the perception of our abilities as women," Nabina laments. "Most of the Nepali people, male but also female, think that women should first take care of their housework, their husband, the children and that if they work, it is in an office, from 9 to 5". Lanka added: "Even after studying civil engineering, most of the girls work in consultancy or do desk work. Men of course but even women doubt our capacity to work in the field, to adapt ourselves to different environments. In our job we have to visit different rural areas, to stay far from our families, to work only with male colleagues, to travel with them. So they think it's not safe for us. We always have to convince them we are equal to men, we can do it, we are able to meet this challenge."
“We're women, we're civil engineer and we're capable.
We can travel all around Nepal, working in the field, even in some remote areas. Exactly as a man.”
Lanka and Nabina, 27 years old, civil engineer on motorable bridges projects
Working in the field, far from their families, is what they are doing today. Lanka and Nabina followed a one-year traineeship, exclusively reserved for fresh graduate women engineers, focused on bridges and set up by the Swiss cooperation. This traineeship enabled them to be hired by the Local Road Bridges Programme, a joint programme of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Government of Nepal. They are technical support engineers, based in Ithari in the Sunsari district. And proud of it.
Essential family support
Anju also followed this traineeship, but a year earlier. 27 years old, also a recent graduate of a civil engineering faculty, she testifies in the same way as her two colleagues. Especially as she does not come from Kathmandu but from a small town in the central Terai, a 10-hour bus ride from the capital. "I studied in Butwal, in Lumbini Province, it was not common at all for girls to study civil engineering. We were only 12 girls out of 90 students. I myself decided to enter this study and my parents were very supportive, even when I had to travel far from home during my traineeship. They believe in me". Without this family support, it is impossible for a girl to do this kind of study anyway. She also deplores the lack of consideration, sometimes even from male colleagues. "Sometimes we are not well understood. We are civil engineer as well, we are capable, but I feel sometimes they don't believe in us."
Anju is also now working in Itahari, on the same program, but she specializes in trail bridges. She works directly for Helvetas, which is the technical support partner of the project. "I'm very happy and proud of my work. Trail bridges are essential in Nepal. There are almost 8000 of them in the country! They allow children to go to school, farmers to sell their products in the markets, families to stay close to their relatives, villagers to have access to hospitals, etc. Yes, I'm very proud, as civil engineer, to be an active participant in all this."
Anju, 27 years old, civil engineer on trail bridges projects
Bridges as a new source of income for local women
These young engineers are not the only women you meet on and around bridges, whether they are under construction or not. There are those girls who casually ride their bikes across the bridge, taking selfies or making a Tik-Tok video. There are the women carrying kilos of grass on their backs, to feed the family cattle, or the women returning from the market in crowded, rickety minibuses. There is also Sarita, this young mother who opened a small shop right in front of this bridge over the Sardu River, still under construction. "I serve tea, coffee, breakfasts, I also sell different small things. My house is just behind it, so when I heard that they were going to build a new bridge, I thought it was a good opportunity to open a shop just opposite." Her husband is a policeman, she was a housewife. She decided to build this little shop on her own, and now she runs it alone. "It allows me to earn money, and the shop works well, all the people who work on the construction of the bridge take breaks at my place, every day. But also the villagers who come to see the work in progress, and those who cross the river. Sometimes I have to turn people away !".
A new bridge is also a source of income for other women, those directly involved in its construction. The programme insists on the inclusion of local women in the construction workforce. Duida was one of them. Her work consisted of the consolidation of the river banks under this bridge at the exit of Dharan, in Sunsari District, and mainly the collection of boulders. For 600 rupies per day. Often the women's work is limited to this, or to the construction of protective walls. For Duida, the financial contribution is also measured in more sales opportunities. Like most people in the region, her family lives off the products of their farm. "In the rainy season, it was almost impossible to cross the river with our products and reach the market and shops in Dharan. There were often accidents, people were swept away. Now we can sell our products all year round."
On the same bridge, this one finished, an old lady is waiting patiently, sitting on the low wall, a gas bottle, big bags of rice and other food items by her side, things that cannot be found in her village. She spent 3 days in Dharan with her family and she's waiting for a local vehicule to take her home to the hills. "I make the trip about once a month, since the bridge was built. Before, you had to find a jeep, it was longer, more complicated but also more expensive, ."
On the newly built trail bridge over the Solti River in Urlabari, a group of women explain what for them is a real life-changer: "It used to take us two hours to go to cut grass for the cattle. It is also a huge time saver for our children, as the school is on the other side of the bridge. In addition, they now come home for lunch, so we don't have to prepare meals for them in advance, or pay for food on site. The bridge is also a financial gain for us."
Access to the school. This was the primary reason for building another trail bridge in Jhapa district, close to the Indian border. Usha, now a young mother, reminisces about her school days before the bridge. As is often the case in rural Nepal, her village has only a small primary school. "To go further, especially to secondary school, we had to go elsewhere. Not only did we have to walk for hours, but in the rainy season it was often impossible to cross the river. I saw many of my friends drop out of school, either because they were lazy or because their parents preferred to keep them at home to help them. This was not the case for their brothers. Today, with the bridge, it is so much easier for girls to continue school!"
“Before a new trail bridge is built, the communities involved are consulted. As a female deputy mayor,
I make sure to listen to women !”
Laxmi Devi Bhandari, Deputy Mayor of Urlabari
Taking girls and women into account before building a bridge. Not always easy in a society that remains very patriarchal. As far as bridges are concerned, this is now played out at local level. Since the country's federalisation in 2015, it is the municipalities that are primarily responsible. Therefore, having women in the decision-making bodies is essential. "Before a new trail bridge is built, the communities involved are consulted. As my village was involved in this case, I always made sure that the needs and interests of women were taken into account," says Krishna Kumari Biswokarma, ward member of Mitladgun. It must be said that this dynamic mother of two applied exclusively for this task: to put the women of her village in the spotlight.
Laxmi Devi Bhandari, Deputy Mayor of Urlabari, agrees. "Since the beginning of the construction of the bridge, I have often come to meet the local communities. For me it is essential that women are listened to. Since we can control the budgets and verify their proper use, we have to ensure that they are used for their welfare in particular." When it was pointed out to her that men won 98% of chief positions (mayors and chairpersons) in the first federal elections of 2017, she replied dryly: "It was the first municipal elections. In the next elections, more than 50% of mayors will be women!"
Laxmi Devi Bhandari, Deputy Mayor of Urlabari