Teaching Women Vocational Skills in Nepal

Feature | 12 January 2012

An ADB-supported project in Nepal is helping some of the most disadvantaged women in the country build careers in occupations once reserved for men.

Kathmandu, Nepal─The 37-year-old senior plumber moves quickly around the construction site. Supervising the men working there, checking details, and assuring quality, the master plumber is clearly in charge.

Such a scene is not unusual in Kathmandu. Nepal's growing capital bustles with construction sites.

That is, except for one important detail: the senior plumber is a woman.

Female plumbers are rare in Nepal, and senior female plumbers are even rarer. In fact, Sumitra Shrestha is the only one in the country.

"Some clients ask me, 'Can a woman do this kind of work? Can you handle this?'" she says. "I tell them, 'Just watch me work. Talk to my former clients. If you see how I work, you won't be worried.'"

Shrestha formerly worked as a weaver. As a single mother supporting a 10-year-old son, she struggled to earn enough to keep them fed. Little was left over for housing and education, so she was intrigued when she heard about a program that trained women to become plumbers.

"I was interested because I had not heard of a woman plumber before," she says. "I thought, 'Why don't I take this challenge?'" Her salary is now five times higher than when she was a weaver, and she can afford to send her son to a good school.

"You have to be willing to work hard to be a plumber and it can be dangerous working on construction sites," she says. "But it is skilled labor, the pay is good, and the work is secure."

"There is always a need for plumbers," she adds with a smile.

New skills, new lives

Shrestha benefited from the Skills for Employment Project, which was supported by a $20 million loan from ADB. Administered by the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training, the project has supported a number of institutions to provide training and skills development for women, people from the Dalit caste (marginalized by society), and other disadvantaged people.

Nepal faces complex development challenges, with poverty and its manifestations driven in part by regional, gender, ethnic, and caste-related inequalities. The government has recognized that urgent measures are needed to address chronic poverty and social exclusion while encouraging economic growth.

"This project specifically targets women and disadvantaged groups," says Suman Subba, social development and gender officer with ADB's Nepal Resident Mission. "It provides basic education and skills training that allows for self-employment, salaried work, and even international employment."

The project was designed to have at least 60% of the trainee beneficiaries represent women, Dalits, or disadvantaged groups; while ensuring that at least 50% are women and at least 25% are Dalit. Targeting by social group and raising the awareness of participating institutions about gender equity and social inclusion have helped address poverty and exclusion. An estimated 61,000 people will have completed training by the end of the project period.

Sanju Bajracharya, a placement officer at Samo Thimi Technical School of Underprivileged Children's Education, one of the institutions providing training under the project, says that skilled women workers are in high demand in Nepal.

"Women provide continuity to employers that many male workers don't offer," she says. "Women workers are less likely to go overseas. Many male workers learn a skill and then seek work overseas. Some only work half a year before they start seeking work in the Middle East. Women workers will stay employed with the same company for longer."

Radma Ale Magar, a widow and former housewife, who is raising two teenage sons, was eager for the chance to learn a skill after her husband passed away.

She is a student in the commercial light vehicle training program at Samo Thimi Technical School. She is learning to drive and do basic auto repair in order to be a taxi or minibus driver, or possibly a family driver.

"I am interested in becoming a driver because the number of motor vehicles is increasing in Kathmandu and there are many opportunities," she said. "There is a big need for drivers as the economy grows."

She says she is not concerned about being a woman in a traditionally male line of work.

"Many families prefer to have a woman as a family driver because they are more careful drivers, less aggressive, and good with transporting children," she says. "Even if I am a taxi driver, I will not be afraid of the work. I will drive a taxi alone, even at night. I am confident I can do the work."