Helping humanitarians in the Himalayas to stay safe
Story written by Monica Upadhyay
“For as long as I can remember, women and men from my village have always worked on construction sites without any protective gear. They sift sand, carry bricks, or crush rocks into smaller stones, but always with their bare hands,” says 23-year-old Miri Lama as she fiddles with the elastic belt of her white helmet.
As a Community Medical Assistant, she is currently working on a construction site in Dhading district in central Nepal that is managed by the World Food Programme (WFP). It’s Miri’s job to orient staff on workplace safety and deliver first aid if accidents happen.
Miri is originally from the remote Tir valley, historically famous for its majestic view of the Himalayas. She grew up with her parents, one brother and two sisters. “We lived in a hut that had no electricity and no running water,” she explained.
After she passed grade 10, she took a break from formal studies to decide what she wanted to do with her life. “While I was still unsure about what to do next, I came across the biography of Florence Nightingale, who inspired me ‘to herald my way to a new world than stay idly on the shore’.”
One day, one of her neighbours passed the exam to train as Community Medical Assistant (CMA). Miri was inspired because she loved helping people and wanted to make a difference in her community.
“Patients need more than a treatment plan to heal effectively. As a certified CMA, I could contribute to the well being of my community members not only through routine tasks and procedures such as obtaining vital signs and administering medications, but also by instilling hope and thus creating a positive and healing atmosphere.”
She convinced her parents and they finally agreed to let her attend vocational school. She worked hard and passed her final exams with good grades.
This experience motivated her to enrol in high school and pursue her formal education. She passed Grade 11 and got a job as a CMA in Dhading district. While she desperately wanted to get some first-hand experience, her parents forced her to turn down the offer as it was away from home.
Instead, she was encouraged to opt for low-paid local level employment opportunities. “Being told to turn down a well-paid job offer as it was located far away from your home was probably one of the worst things I had to go through. I was angry. I was angry at the fact that I would never be able to get a good job, learn new things and make money. ”
Miri was still in Grade 12 when her father decided to marry her off to the son of a distant relative. At the age of 20, she left home to join her husband’s family in Ruby valley in Dhading district. A couple of months later, her husband left for Dubai to work in construction while she stayed home with her in-laws and completed high school.
The start of a humanitarian career
Fortunately for Miri, her close friend told her that a local partner of WFP’s was looking for a Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) and Sexual Harassment focal person for the DFID-funded PURNIMA trail improvement project. It was through WFP outreach that she found a job that involved helping construction workers from her community to be safe at work.
“Looking back, I have this feeling that I became a humanitarian worker by accident. After I passed vocational school, I wanted to join a private health clinic and make money. I never knew there is another side to me that values helping men and women from my community to ‘think safe’, ‘work safe’ and ‘go home safe’.”
Today, as the HSE focal person, Miri visits all construction sites under the project to train workers on the diverse range of hazards that have to be managed to keep them safe. For her, it is important that all workers are safety-aware and empowered to make decisions around their safety and that of their co-workers. She is often heard motivating workers, saying “One of the main reasons you all should take work safety very seriously is to be able to get home to your family each night and enjoy the time you get to spend with them.”
“I started working in this rural construction site at the beginning of 2019. At that time, there were fewer working women as this site was located far away from their residences, and it was not considered safe. Here, I found my niche in creating a women-friendly working space and motivating everyone to follow the safety rules and create safe working spaces for both men and women.”
The pride she sees in her husband’s face is the one thing that motivates her the most. “My husband is my biggest supporter. He keeps me strong.” He still works in Dubai, but whenever he comes home they always make plans for the future.
Today, Miri earns enough money to support her family year-round. “My parents have built a new house, this time with running water and electricity. I’m also making a monthly financial contribution to help my younger brother and sister to complete their studies,” she says with a smile.
Miri works hard to inspire other women in her village, encouraging them to seek employment that pays well and brings more food into their homes.
“Empowering women to make choices over their lives is one of the first steps towards a world with Zero Hunger,” said Mr Selwyn Heaton, Head of WFP Nepal’s Engineering Unit. “Miri is just one example of the many strong women we encounter in our work.”