Breaking Barriers

Hotrika Joshi—a field engineer overseeing the construction of Transitional Learning Centres for children in earthquake-affected areas—is changing assumptions about women’s role in construction

Aayush Niroula
A female engineer
UNICEF Nepal/2019/ANiroula

11 February 2019

Sindhupalchowk, Nepal – On a rainy August morning in Sindhupalchowk District, Hotrika Joshi rushes towards the Setidevi Basic School in Sunkoshi Rural Municipality. Joshi was born and raised in Kailali District in the Far Western region of Nepal. She travelled the nearly 500 kilometers from home to Sindhupalchowk to oversee the construction of a Transitional Learning Centre (TLC) for the school.

Joshi works as a field engineer for the Emergency Education Response Project, which is being implemented by UNICEF Nepal thanks to the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The project supports the reconstruction of educational infrastructure that was destroyed by the 2015 earthquake.

Joshi is responsible for making sure the transitional structure meets the optimum quality standards and will provide a safe learning space for children studying at Setidevi. However, this TLC is only one of many construction projects she completed in Nepal.

Once on site—after consulting with engineers, site supervisors and construction team leaders, Joshi is quick and precise with her instructions and feedback.

Joshi on a supervision visit at one of her sites
UNICEF Nepal/2019/ANiroula
Joshi on a supervision visit at one of her sites

Now and then, though, she does get a few curious looks from passersby. The attention doesn’t bother Joshi. She knows why people stare. Women engineers—particularly those working in the field far from their homes—are still a rare sight in Nepal. In fact, it makes her very happy to know that her work serves a dual purpose—rebuilding safe learning spaces and changing traditional views about women’s capability in male-dominated careers such as construction. Through her work, she is proving that women too can lead construction and engineering sectors.

All of her life, she has been fighting such patriarchal notions that seek to dictate what a woman can and cannot do. Her decision to take up disaster risk management as part of her graduate degree and enter the engineering and construction sector was driven by her determination to change the local mindset.

Joshi is thankful to her parents for always being supportive of her choices.

“That helps a lot,” she says.

Remarkably, Hotrika took on this herculean challenge while fighting an internal battle against epilepsy—a neurological disorder characterized by unpredictable seizure attacks. Throughout her childhood and some of her adult life, Joshi has had to take regular medication; although she no longer needs it now.

“A doctor had told me fairly early on that I would have to take medication all my life,” she explains. “I did that for 18 years, and it’s hard for me to describe how happy I am to leave that life behind and to be immersing myself fully in what I love doing.”

A female engineer
UNICEF Nepal/2019/ANiroula

Her irrepressible spirit and the technical skills she acquired through her studies became her pillars in 2015, when fourteen districts in Nepal were left severely damaged by the Gorkha earthquake. 34,500 classrooms—of both public and private schools—were completely destroyed, leaving 1.5 million students deprived of safe learning spaces where they could read and learn. Three years since, Nepal is gradually rebuilding vital infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals.

When the earthquake struck, Joshi was in her hometown in Kailali; the earthquake had minimal impact in that region. Soon after, news began to pour in revealing the sheer scale of the disaster.

Hotrika knew that this was her calling, and she spurred into action. She joined the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) Programme’s emergency relief operations and was assigned to work in debris management in Sindhupalchowk District.

The experience proved life-changing for Joshi, and she is particularly grateful for her then-supervisor, who entrusted her leading a team of 14 engineers.

“Not everyone was convinced,” she recalls, “But I was determined to work hard and prove that my supervisor had made the right decision.”

This she did, gaining a major boost of confidence in the process, and going on to work for the Nepal Government’s National Reconstruction Authority, where she was in charge of managing an even bigger team.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. As a woman, I’ve faced my fair share of challenges and disappointments that men in the same job might not have to go through,” Joshi says. “But, I also wouldn’t say any of that has ever held me back.”

Working in the Emergency Education Response for Nepal Project, Joshi is responsible for making sure that schools affected by the earthquake—some of which were completely destroyed and have were conducting classes out in the open—have safe and resilient structures for students and teachers. She has supervised the construction of 27 TLCs in the last 10 months, and she says she feels immense pride in being a part of an effort like this.

As part of the United States Government's commitment to support Nepal's rebuilding, USAID is funding the construction of 250 Transitional Learning Centres. Construction began in November of 2017. And, with 176 TLCs already built and 41 under construction, it is slated to finish in March of this year.

“It isn’t just the number of TLCs we’ve built that gives me satisfaction, but the communities I have been able to help,” Joshi says. “These are small schools located in remote areas where children from the most marginalized communities come to seek education. They could’ve easily fallen through the cracks if not for the Emergency Education Response for Nepal Project,” she added, referring to the priority given to reconstructing bigger schools with larger numbers of students.

Today, parents and teachers in the communities Joshi works in—where she has now become a familiar face—routinely point her out to their children and remind them of “how far she’s come.” The expression, Joshi says, is both literal and figurative. She is far from home, but also far from the societal and personal constraints that might once have derailed her from her chosen path.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. As a woman, I’ve faced my fair share of challenges and disappointments that men in the same job might not have to go through,” Joshi says. “But, I also wouldn’t say any of that has ever held me back.”