Women-managed community kitchens support vulnerable women in Nepal

More than 41 per cent of women lost their jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown in Nepal. These women-managed community kitchens are helping families get back on their feet.

Pushpa Sunar (in blue) and her team distribute food from the community kitchen organised by UN Women partner Maiti Nepal. Photo courtesy of Maiti Nepal

Vulnerable and excluded groups of women, including returnee migrants, rural dwellers, women with disabilities, daily wageworkers, and women who are ill, pregnant or lactating, have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. More than 41 per cent of women lost their jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown in Nepal.

With no employment, many women are finding it difficult to feed themselves and their families, resulting in devastating consequences.

“How can I be given medicine to take on a full stomach when I don’t have any food to eat?” said one rural woman to a doctor. “Could you please prescribe medicine that I can take on an empty stomach?”

Responding to this crisis, UN Women has established 10 community kitchens across Nepal as part of their comprehensive relief efforts to support vulnerable women with food and other essential items, address gender-based violence, unpaid work and lack of access to information, and challenge discriminatory gender norms and harmful practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

These women-managed community kitchens provides an average of 250 meals per day to the community. Each meal includes rice, daal (lentil soup), spinach, vegetables, fruits, ladoo (sweets) and a bottle of water. The women take special care to maintain a high level of hygiene while preparing and packaging the food.

The community kitchen employs a team of eight women who start working at 5am in order to have the meals ready for distribution by 9 am. Photo courtesy of Maiti Nepal

The kitchens have also provided an income to the women working there. Pushpa Sunar, 30, is one of the 123 people employed in the community kitchens. The money she earns from working in the kitchen has been key in sustaining her family of six during COVID. Before the pandemic, Sunar worked as a social activist preventing child marriage in her community, but the project ran out of funding. Her father, who worked as a security guard at a bank, has not received regular income since the lockdown.

“All the staff working in the community kitchens were either unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic or were sustaining their families with minimal income,” says Maheshwari Bhatta, a Project Coordinator at Maiti Nepal, a UN Women partner. “We are not only increasing their energy with nutritious food, but also developing their immunity in these desperate times.”

Sunar and her team of eight people start cooking at 5 am in order to have the meals ready for delivery by 9 am. When Sunar went on a few delivery trips, she realised that people would save the meal to eat at night as that would be their only meal for the day. Some would tell Sunar how they could not afford to eat such nutritious food even when there was no lockdown. Others would cry with gratitude for receiving food in such dire circumstances.

These meals have been able to alleviate the care burden among women in the community. “Women are often the ones cooking for their entire families at home, but are hesitant to do so professionally and earn an income,” says Sunar. “When women are financially independent, they no longer have to be dependent on the men in their families.”

Free meals from the community kitchens have also helped build trust and cohesion in the community while supporting women from diverse backgrounds.  

Since June 2020, four CSOs – Women for Human Rights, Maiti Nepal, Nagarik Aawaz, and Nari Bikas Sangh – have been intermittently operating community kitchens, depending on COVID restrictions. With UN Women’s financial and technical support, they served over 95,000 meals and baby food to 30,000 people between June 2020 and January 2021.

Adapted from UN Women