“There is no one word that fully describes the experience,” said LS Susanne Peterson, who recently travelled with two other Navy women to Nepal to lend their hands to a project which builds homes for families living in poverty.
“The week we spent in Nepal was confronting, inspiring, empowering and simply amazing, and I left with a sense that we had effected real change for people living in absolute poverty,” said LS Peterson, who shared the experience with CPO Sky McPhee and LEUT Chloe Ryan.
Their visit was part of the Navy’s contribution to Australia’s National Action Plan to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.
The resolution, which was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council in October 2000, recognises that the needs and experiences of females differ from those of males in conflict, peace building and post conflict reconstruction efforts; while the National Action Plan charges the ADF (and other Commonwealth agencies) with adopting and acting on the UNSCR 1325 agenda.
As part of its commitment to the plan, the Royal Australian Navy sent LS Peterson, CPO McPhee and LEUT Ryan to Nepal’s Itahari municipality to take part in the Hand to Hand project, which is run by the non-profit organisation Habitat for Humanity Australia to build homes (using local building techniques) for impoverished, mainly female-headed families.
Habitat for Humanity had already built 290 homes in the Itahari municipality in 2011, but more were needed to house families desperately in need. And so, the three Navy women and 57 others rolled up their sleeves to get the job done.
Hands-on Community Building in Nepal
by LSET Susanne Peterson
I met the two other Navy members, CPO Sky McPhee and LEUT Chloe Ryan, at Sydney Airport and then we were on our way! After a late arrival and an overnight stay in Kathmandu, we first experienced the sights and sounds of Nepal while on our way to the airport to catch a flight to the Itahari region. I found myself struggling not to stare – there was goats and cows all over the road, the power lines were wild and unsecured, and there was a barber shop on the side of the road! Having never really seen this kind of society, it was certainly an eye opener.
We were met in Biratnagar by our Habitat for Humanity hosts, and transported to the hotel where we would spend the next week. The hot water for the shower was supplied by the electric hot water urn - and power black outs were a regular occurrence! Nevertheless, we were welcomed by the community with open arms, and these potential annoyances soon became the subject of a bit of quirky humour.
A welcoming ceremony saw our foreheads painted red, with a paint that was seemingly impossible to remove! The resultant chorus of 60 women laughing at us sounded quite musical.
After a safety brief, we were off to our building sites to split bamboo into pieces that were thin enough to weave walls. There was always some friendly banter between the ‘splitters’ and ‘weavers’, not getting the length or the thickness right.
At the end of day two the houses were at ‘lock up’ with walls completed! This gave my team a real sense of achievement, that we had turned a slab and some bamboo into a home – but we weren’t finished yet.
The rendering came next – this included sifting sand through a bamboo and wire frame, and mixing it with cement and water to create render for the bamboo walls. Getting the technique right to make the render actually stick to the walls was much trickier than the local mason had let on, but we all had a good laugh as we got render in our hair! My blonde hair was also of interest to the local children! Blonde hair was quite a rare sight in this region, and they would sneak any chance they could to pat it.
On the Wednesday afternoon, we were fortunate enough to visit some of the women who had benefited from homes built during the Hand in Hand project in 2011. Their community – which had been quite rural - now had roads and powerlines, and new brick homes which they had paid off through microfinance loans. Some had even built extensions on their homes, which allowed them to open local stores! It was really rewarding to see the enormous differences that these homes had made, not only to the people who had received them, but to the entire community – thanks to Habitat’s work. It was great to see tangible results.
On the final day we painted and decorated our newly built houses for a dedication ceremony, during which we shared our experiences and our hopes for the new residents. I found the activity more emotional than I ever expected. Our house volunteers and the local community had only spent five days together, but I felt a real connection to these people, and sharing our hopes and dreams for the community was a privilege I will never forget. The women we built these houses for were some of the strongest, kindest women I have ever met. You could not find women more deserving of safe and secure housing.
On the last night, before we flew out, we regrouped at a local hotel in Kathmandu. It was then that I realised that I was surrounded by so many strong, educated, and inspiring women. I felt sorry for anyone who might cross us! It was an empowering experience to see what a difference we, as women, could make. I now have a much better appreciation for how far we still have to go, and I hope to conduct another build with Habitat. I truly believe I’ve returned home a more positive, and enthusiastic person.
For further information on the UNSCR 1325 National Action Plan can be found on the United Nations (UN) website at www.un.org/en by following the links to Security Council Resolutions. Additional information is available on the UN Women Australia website at www.unwomen.org.au.