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Nepal: boosting capacity of Red Cross volunteers

31-07-2008 Feature

Until the 2006 ceasefire agreement, the ICRC’s primary aim in Nepal was to protect and assist victims of the armed conflict between the government and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist. It has since adapted its assistance activities to the new situation of internal disturbances. The ICRC’s Susannah Cernojevich reports.

   

  ©ICRC    
 
  Protesters demanding that shop owners support a strike by closing their businesses for the day.    
     

The ICRC supports the Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) in strengthening its operational capacity, responding to emergency situations and carrying out projects. Through such support, for instance, NRCS volunteers boost their basic first-aid training by undergoing ICRC training designed to prepare them to assist people affected by situations of violence. Volunteers are thus able to provide the Nepalese people with much-needed emergency services during difficult times, such as the present.

In and around Nepulganj, Pokhara and Biratnagar, the ICRC is working closely with the NRCS in 2008 to establish Red Cross Action Teams (RCAT). A brainchild of the two institutions, the RCAT was created to respond promptly to a range of emergencies. Its volunteers are trained to carry out rescue operations, manage disasters, restore severed family links and conduct blood donations.

Aged between 18 and 35, volunteers operate within their own districts. This makes it easy to mobilize them in a timely manner to carry out emergency operations and is thus important for the programme's success.

 A day in the life of a volunteer  

    

The RCAT team at the Kathmandu district chapter of the Red Cross is headed by Rajendra Shrestha, an eight-year veteran with the NRCS. A strike in Kathmandu puts his RCAT to the test.

 

Rajendra paces the halls of the Kathmandu district chapter of the Red Cross, his mobile phone close to hand. He has been there all morning waiting for updates on the situation throughout the city. " If first-aid services are needed, he says, I can mobilize volunteers within 20 minutes”. Asked how many emergencies he has responded to, he quickly answers, " I haven't counted, it has been too many. "

   
  ©ICRC    
 
  Rajendra Shrestha, team leader of the Red Cross Action Team (RCAT), which responds to emergencies.    
     

Sometimes Rajendra spends the entire day waiting by the phone and listening to the latest news in the city. He may receive information by phone or text message from the volunteer network of Kathmandu's 19 sub-chapters. He might even pick up the latest news from the streets.

" When we hear of a problem in some part of the city, " explains Rajendra, " I get volunteers to gather first-aid materials and go to the scene to assist and evacuate the injured. An employee from Kathmandu headquarters once came across a Tibetan refugee protest that was turning violent, " recalls Rajendra. " He called the Red Cross chapter and I sent volunteers to the location. The people appreciated timely action by the Red Cross. "

A volunteer's work often puts them in harm's way. Rajendra recounts an incident during a strike in 2007 when a volunteer was hit by a stone as he attempted to evacuate an injured policeman. " Sometimes volunteers are trapped between protesters and the police and it becomes difficult to help people when you have to worry about your own safety. "

 Changing perceptions  

    

Rajendra, who operates a small business from the same building as a Red Cross district chapter, is also the secretary of the Swayambhu NRCS sub-chapter. Of his involvement with the Red Cross he says: " After seeing its activities, one day I thought that I should join. "

   
  ©ICRC    
 
  Sangha Ratna Shakya, Secretary of the Nepal Red Cross Society, Kathmandu District Chapter.    
     

As time goes by, the work of the RCAT is also helping change the image of the Red Cross in Nepal. Mr Sangha Ratna Shakya, Secretary of the Kathmandu district chapter of the Nepalese Red Cross has this to say: " A few years ago, people had a different perception of the NRCS. The NRCS was seen as simply blood services and ambulances, but this changed completely since RCAT was developed, because people see the NRCS giving first aid and rescuing people in the streets. "

The RCAT mandate stipulates that at least 33 per cent of the members of every RCAT team have to be women. The Kathmandu district chapter has gone a step further–over 50 per cent of its volunteers are women.

" Today, the RCAT team is prepared in case something happens during the strike, " said Rajendra, " but I have heard no new information, nothing yet from the valley. But the teams are ready and volunteers are on call. " Mr Shakya added, " the volunteers are prepared and ready to help, but we are still hoping that nothing will happen today. "