This is the second of a series of reports on the Mahakali basin, see the first: Mahakali women find their voices

Shiva and Parvati are epitomised in Hinduism as the joint protectors of the Himalayas. But men are conspicuously absent from the villages and towns on the banks of the Mahakali – the transboundary river that marks the western border of Nepal with India.

In village after village, you see only women, children and old people. A UN report, World Population Prospects, 2019 said that in 2019 the net migration rate for Nepal was 2.203 per 1,000 people, a 48.25% increase from 2018.

The women cope, with increasing confidence.

woman carrying her child in a shawl next to the gateway in Dadeldhura region of Mahakali river basin

The gateway welcoming you to this village in Dadeldhura region of the Mahakali River basin has statues of Shiva and Parvati on top. A woman who has to go to town for the remittance money her husband has sent wraps her child in her shawl as she waits for transport; the other would-be passenger is a retired soldier

In most homes around the transboundary Mahakali River and its tributaries, you meet only women, children and the elderly

Most of the men travel to other countries in search of jobs, a trend that has been accelerated by the impacts of climate change – agriculture has been badly impacted by flash floods and land erosion that have become more frequent and more severe. Traditionally smallholder agriculture was the main source of livelihood in this region.

A man leaves his village

Now families are critically dependent on remittances wired from abroad. It is common for women living in remote Darchula, Baitadi and Dadeldhura regions to travel overnight to get the money wired to them. Mobile phones have become an absolute necessity – without it, they do not know when the money has been wired. And it is the only way to stay in touch with a husband, a father, a brother.

Mobile phones are lifelines

For most of the time, women find various ways to earn money as well as carry out all household and farm work.

A woman runs a fruit stall in front of an advertisement for a remittance delivery firm

The shepherds are women, sometimes accompanied by children

Women carry firewood through the snow

Women from riverside villages work as daily wage labourers, quarrying stones and sieving sand from the riverbed

Women and girls spend hours every day, clambering down steep hillsides to fetch water from the river, and then walking up with laden vessels

Almost invariably, the farmers are women

Women walk home with fodder

Even when a man is at home, he may not be of much help, due to deep-rooted male prejudices that say all household work is to be done by women

A group of young men on their way to play cricket, a common sight in most of South Asia, but a rare sight in the Mahakali basin

Children are the only regular companions the women have

Meanwhile, the women have to keep their farms going and look after their families, mostly children and old people. They do this in an era of increasing flash floods, landslides, bank erosion, water contamination and debris flow.

Grethel Aguilar, acting director general of IUCN, writes in a recent study, “The damage humanity is inflicting on nature can also fuel violence against women around the world – a link that has so far been largely overlooked.” As shown in the first report in this series, the women of the Mahakali basin are fighting back to take charge of their lives.

A grandfather helps out as a babysitter while a Women’s Empowerment Committee meeting gets underway in a village in the Mahakali basin

A Women’s Empowerment Committee meeting on the Mahakali riverbed

Next: The women leaders of the Mahakali

This work was supported by The Third Pole-Oxfam Shared Water Media Grants as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project funded by the Government of Sweden. Views expressed are solely those of the author


  1. The most beautiful, country in the world. Have come to the Himmayalas 6 times.Always learning,you carry incredible knowledge. The Himmayalas, feel so much at home,with your people. The Himmayalas,they are a gift, special, beautiful scenery. Thankyou for all your stories from Nepal

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