Rural village with cow grazing.

+ Nepalese village

Two months ago, I was in rural Nepal, mixing cement and plastering bamboo walls. It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d do.

Late last year, Arup decided to sponsor four women to go on a build expedition with Habitat for Humanity. It was a female-only project, to mark the centenary of International Women’s Day. A hundred women went to Nepal to build ten homes for female-headed households. I pitched my story, penned my essay and six weeks later, I got a call from our regional CEO.  I was going to Itahari, Nepal.

With the fund-raising, project deadlines, airline bookings and visa arrangements, I barely had time to prepare for the trip. I went there with zero expectations.

The trip truly was an eye-opener. What struck me was the way women – particularly widows – were treated in Nepal. They were really considered second-class citizens. Whilst I didn’t witness or experience any discrimination, I heard a number of stories during the build. A man beating his wife with a plank of wood in public – in broad daylight – and everyone just treating it as a normal occurrence. Demeaning and derogatory remarks from male passers-by when they saw a group of women building. A family disowning their daughter after she had been widowed. 

A single mother working 12 hours in a day to earn 300 rupees a month – the equivalent of one man’s daily wage. I’ve seen my share of discrimination, but Nepal probably has some of the most extreme cases of gender inequity I’ve encountered in my lifetime. This made me truly admire the few Nepali women who go against social convention and speak up for women’s rights. Women who create businesses and organisations that help other women improve their lot in life.  And it makes me ask – what can I do to help make things better?

I returned from Nepal with a renewed sense of gratitude and of social responsibility. As an architect and sustainability consultant, I can probably make a positive difference in many ways.  It can be finding an alternative energy source for Nepal (the cities only have power for eight to 12 hours a day, with most establishments relying on diesel generators for the rest of the time). It can be supporting an organisation that provides microloans to women for their businesses. Or it could be creating a sustainable form of livelihood. At the end of the day, shaping a better world doesn’t just mean designing pretty buildings.

Often we focus on problems around our already well-developed towns and cities. We forget that there is another world where power is unavailable for most of the night; that poor air quality isn’t the result of automobiles burning fossil fuel, but from brick kilns that employ school-age children for less than a dollar a day. Where people get sick because they don’t have a home to keep them warm and dry.

Maybe it’s time to look beyond our modern cities, and help build cleaner, greener and better cities where they’re actually needed.