The research explores women’s rights at the intersection of land and disaster. It is the launch of an iterative exploration of the role and power of gender as embedded within legal, political, economic, cultural, and social power structures – in this first iteration as operationalized to institutionalize access to and control over land, and its denial – in order to build more resilient and equitable individuals, households, and communities that are better prepared to face an ever-increasingly turbulent and complex 21st century.

The work is an expansion of a previously developed conceptual framework surrounding relational risk in order to recognize, incorporate, and speculate on feminine gender as a core driver and transfer agent of risk within extended urbanization an emerging operational network of systems and processes that typify modern urbanization and globalization – and that we contend are fundamentally creating and restructuring patterns of risk in unprecedented ways, demanding our attention in both theory and practice. Reconsidering notions of risk and resilience as systemic, not site-specific requires a new approach to risk vulnerability engaged with theories of extended urbanization: that events in one locale have direct implications and perhaps significant consequences to another locale that is network connected yet physically anywhere in the world.

Conducting fieldwork nearly nine months after the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes, Ashley visited one of Nepal’s most affected districts, Sindhupalchok, and discovered an all-women community and the absolute destruction that can be imagined to follow two major and sequential earthquakes in the developing world.  Their mostly mud-and-stone multistory homes destroyed in entirety, now salvaged rock piles ; their temporary shelters hastily erected from salvaged wood framing, metal sheets, and thatch – not a man in sight. This encounter precipitated a dawning realization, after years of similar experiences of ever-more women dominated communities, of what is an increasingly global, undeniably socio-cultural phenomenon: boys and men departing their homes and families to seek better opportunities, while the girls and women stay behind. The resulting distortion of the gender demographic across geographies and cultures is startling – villages, towns, and camps everywhere seemingly inhabited only by women, children, and the elderly or impaired. All those who are en(able)d, leave.

 Need Identification

With a remittance economy designed to privilege male labor migration and today constituting nearly a quarter of the national GDP, Nepal serves as archetype and case study of distorted gender demographics within a relational risk geography, synthesized at the nexus of gender, land, and disaster. Around the globe the right to claim and control land and the resources land yields is one of the most fundamental aspects to physical, economic (and therefore social), as well as psychological security and well-being. It is also well accepted that natural disasters affect and disadvantage women more than men, an extension of the uneven cultural and social status that women face globally. These trends were also largely validated in post-earthquake Nepal, further exacerbated by discriminatory treatment towards women and other vulnerable groups as provisioned by the Government of Nepal’s disaster management reconstruction policies, often implicating these groups’ inability to procure and produce required documentation such as citizenship certificates, land and property registration, and on.

 Testing Solution

The scope of this field research did not include testing solutions but was designed to explore and apply a framework to understanding risk geographies structurally embedded within gender, land, and disaster. Accordingly, it attempts to identify keystone challenges, opportunities and implications for key actors that could reveal a model of practice more capable to advance women’s equity and inclusion within humanitarian aid and development. Understanding these challenges, it is clear that a more deliberate framework to integrate and advocate for and with women is required in order to foster women’s active participation, engagement, and leadership – thus mainstreaming and advancing women’s rights across sectors in humanitarian aid and development.


As the social construct of womanhood continues to transform in manifold across a vast spectrum of roles and expectations (often incrementally, occasionally in leap-and-bounds, converging and diverging on past, present, and future expectations ranging from traditional to progressive to erasure), this fieldwork presents preliminary findings advocating that women’s equity and inclusion must be unequivocally mainstreamed across humanitarian aid and development, reframed as a driver of innovation and resilience and thus demanding primacy in partnership models. Female-only issues and programs can no longer serve as proxy for women’s issues at large, and in fact, to their detriment. Instead, conceptions of women’s issues must expand both in theory and practice, and be integrated across every sector that touches women across the humanitarian and development agenda to include education, healthcare, land tenure and property ownership, citizenship and identify, livelihood… in fact, to include them all.

The evolution of this work is similarly multi-directional and includes a more robust set of fieldwork across identified communities in Nepal to explicate the structural systems as affects each respective group across these power structures. Both immediately and in the long-term, the application of this framework entails the deliberate and structural-intersectional reframing as to how aid and development sectors plan and program gender equity and social inclusion, not least of which demands the expanded role of women at every level.


Ashley C. Thompson

Master in Design Studies, Risk and Resilience

Harvard University Graduate School of Design