The Forgotten Plight of Pakistan’s Women: The Aftermath of the Floods
Courtenay Forbes talked to Khadim Dahot, Managing Director of Sewa Development Trust Sindh, to gain an insight into what the floods have meant for Pakistani women.
Lack of Food, Clean Water, and Shelter - a Daily Reality
When an unprecedented amount of rain fell in Pakistan in 2010, and caused devastating floods, the disaster was headline news.
Scenes of entire towns and villages swept away by the waters were brought into the front rooms of homes around the world. However, as is the nature of the media, the floods eventually slipped to the back of people’s minds.
Most people, that is, except for the people suffering across Pakistan.
For those unfortunate masses, the floods became the grim reality of everyday life: struggling to make it through the day without food, clean water, or warm shelter. As is common in such situations, women suffered, and continue to suffer, the most.
The traditional place of women – as inferior to men, means that opportunities for women to receive proper healthcare and support is minute in the cramped refugee camps that have become ‘home’ for so many people. One of the worst affected areas of the country was Sindh province, home to Sewa Development Trust Sindh (SDTS), an NGO committed to improving the status of women across Sindh. Naturally, when the floods hit, much of SDTS’ resources were diverted to supporting those affected by the floods.
Devastating floods wreaked further havoc the following year, in 2011. Floods in the southern province of Sindh were as bad as the previous year's deluge, if not worse, with some 1.5 million houses in damaged or destroyed in Sindh alone, according to aid agencies.
Khadim has a background in human rights, studying the composition of groups in Pakistan. During his education, he focused in on the issues facing women and children, and holds the view that individual citizens have a role in shaping change within their society. Sewa Trust Development Sindh was founded in 2003, allowing Khadim and his colleagues to address women and youth’s issues in this specific area.
For the Women of Sindh, Survival is a Hardship
Khadim told me about the general hardships facing women in Pakistani society today, “Seventy per cent of Pakistani women live in rural areas, with statistics stating that only forty-two per cent of women are literate. According to Pakistani standards, literacy is defined as someone who can read or write a simple piece of writing. In my opinion, this does not include educated women, leaving the statistic for educated Pakistani women at just 4%”.
This clearly indicates that opportunities for women are extremely limited. This is exacerbated by certain cultural traditions that restrict the position of women further: There are feudal systems in place across most of the country, resulting in women being forced into marriage, domestic and agricultural labour, violence, abuse, and even honour killing or ‘Karo Kari,’” he says
Patriarchy and Cultural Barriers Can Leave Women Vulnerable
Women in such positions are not allowed access to modern technology such as mobile phones, or even radios, leaving them in vulnerable positions of subordination to their husbands. “For women and girls, the struggle for modern society is still a dream; it will take a long time for them to be educated.”
Given these pre-existing cultural barriers for women in Pakistan, it is hardly surprising that the floods contributed to the misery they suffer on a daily basis. “In patriarchal societies, women are dependent on the heads of their family – husbands or fathers. During the floods of 2010-2011, women and children were the most vulnerable victims: it is the head of the family who is registered to receive relief support, and it is these members who are given priority within the family, leaving women and children to be cared for after.”
This treatment as women as an afterthought translates also into freedom of movement: “Male members move freely, but women and children need to be in camp, come harsh winter, summer, or rain. Therefore, the lack of water, sanitation, food, and shelter in these conditions result in female and child suffering.”
The support received by families in refugee camps is extremely limited. “The United Nations has helped to provide emergency shelter and has built some new homes. People affected by the floods receive USD 223 from the Pakistani government under the ‘Wattan Card’, which is used for nutrition and healthcare. Despite this, 80% of people are still homeless. Millions faced immigration when the floods hit. There is not enough food or shelter to home this number of people, and most people did not receive tents, sanitation, water, and healthcare, let alone childcare and education. The lack of healthcare particularly affects pregnant women, widows and orphans.”
The Role of Grassroots NGOs
NGOs such as SDTS work to provide humanitarian support in times of crisis.
However, the extent of devastation caused by the Pakistan floods impacted the work of such NGOs: “The floods did not affect the aims of SDTS, but our work was affected in terms of diversion of funding, ongoing developmental and training activities stopped and we focused on relief work.”
This demonstrates the dire need for people to support causes such as the floods, so that the admirable work of people such as those at SDTS is not compromised.
Much of the British media coverage has portrayed an inactive image of the Pakistani government. I asked Khadim about his stance on this topic.
“The government quickly declared an emergency and appealed to the UN and other governments to provide quick relief and rehabilitation. According to UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), there was only a 30% response to this appeal. The government-established ‘Wattan Card’ gave each family a small amount of money, but this was not sufficient for families to re-build homes and feed their children. The government is dependent for more funding and support from the international community”.
Obstacles Faced by Local NGOs
Despite the status of charities such as SDTS as an NGO, the decisions and actions of the government in Pakistan influences the way that such organisations can work in affected areas. “During disasters, it is difficult for NGOs to reach victims. The technical work of rescue requires equipment, food, clothes, etc.”
This material is difficult to provide in substantial numbers when charities have limited resources. “It is especially difficult for SDTS, because resources are given to national organisations first. "Our volunteers rushed to local villages and towns to collect used clothes, dry rations, bed sheets and fundraising. The government – and even other donor agencies, did not provide funding to local organisations for humanitarian support, except in a few areas.”
With so many obstacles facing NGOs in Pakistan, the achievements of SDTS demonstrate the level of commitment from Khadim and his colleagues. Khadim believes that communication is key for further support of these efforts: “It is difficult to raise awareness and funding in times of huge devastation, all communication systems collapse. Local people can only provide personal belongings, which amounts to little due to the widespread poverty that prevails in Pakistan. Politicians, diplomats, and even philanthropists prefer to provide monetary support through cheques in government accounts. There is a dire need for humanitarian intervention to create emergency funding pools”.
Reaching Out to Women in Times of Crisis, A Priority
The extraordinary level of difficulty for SDTS and other charities to reach women in devastated areas means that they must be considered the most vulnerable and given priority.
It is important for women to be respected, even in cramped conditions, Khadim says. “There should be separate toilets, bathing areas, and shelter tents for widows and orphan girls”.
The lack of provisions for women in the flood refugee camps suggests a level of disregard for women in Pakistani society, something SDTS strives to change. The tradition of Purdah, where women are covered and separated from the opposite sex, is an important part of life for most Pakistani women. However, the rushed construction of the refugee camps means that Purdah is not considered. Purdah is the practice of concealing women from men, and can take two forms: physical segregation of the sexes and the requirement for women to cover their bodies and conceal their form.
I asked Khadim how significant this is. “Even in urban areas, highly educated women use Purdah; Muslim societies prefer women to be veiled, and it is tradition in rural communities. Both religious leaders and religious political parties are demanding mandatory Purdah for all women.”
It seems this issue is still in debate across Pakistan. However, it is widely frowned upon that boys and girls are forced to sleep in the same area in the flood camps, and there is little telling about the consequences this will hold for these girls and women. Given these conditions, it is hardly surprising that there have been several incidents of abuse against women in the refugee camps. “Incidents of violence against women and children include incest, and most of the abusers were husbands. Molestation and abduction cases have also been reported, due to the lack of protection and security in the refugee camps.”
Due to the shortage of staff and finance, many of these victims have not had access to legal aid or counselling. “However, SDTS is involved in collecting reported cases and sharing them with other organisations for necessary assistance. There are so many stories that have already been reported, but some remain unreported due to family concerns.”
Stories of tragedy are a sadly common occurrence within the refugee camps. Musmat Naz Khatoon, 53, from Sindh, lost what was left of her failing eyesight when the floods hit. Her daughter, Bakhshul, who suffered from minor disabilities, now has drastically reduced organ function due to a lack of healthcare in the aftermath of the floods.
Women's Resilience Help Them Survive
Fortunately, there are some sparse stories of hope in amongst these.
Musmat Salma, an incredible 105 years old, survived the floods despite spending an astonishing eight days and nights in flood water near her home. Such stories are amazing reminders of the resilience and strength found in women across Sindh province, and remind us why we must continue to support the efforts of SDTS, and other charities working with flood victims.
Traditionally, Pakistani women are only allowed to be treated by female doctors. “The government does not provide medical care for pregnant women. In areas with poor basic health units, and the unavailability of lady medical officers, women are dependent on local birth attendants or Dais. She deals with pregnancy and maternal health, but with the use of unhygienic tools, and a lack of qualifications bar experience, they are the only option for mothers. There is an alarming neonatal mortality rate in Pakistan, due to the inattention towards pregnant women. These traditions can only be changed through education, awareness, and the provision of proper services in each area of the country.”
Fortunately, SDTS provides opportunities for women not just in terms of practical support, but also makes sure to involve women in their team.
Culture and Women’s Role in Society “Cultural barriers apply particularly to rural women, who could not enjoy these opportunities after marriage. Young graduate girls who do want to work are harassed outside their homes: in shopping malls, hospitals, workplaces, and parks, due to insecurity within society. Parents always prefer for their girls to marry as soon as possible, and after marriage, husbands will not allow her education or work. Some will not even allow their wives to go outside the home without his permission.”
Khadim and his colleagues are extremely aware of these situations, and what must be changed to give women a more powerful position in society. The flood victims of Pakistan will be eternally indebted to the hard work and dedication committed individuals such as Khadim and groups such as SDTS strive to provide.
“My motivation is to work for the most poor and vulnerable communities in Pakistan. Being an active citizen and human being I feel it is my responsibility to raise my voice for their rights. It is the responsibility of the state to provide basic life facilities and rights to its people; where the government fails, there is a need for someone to come forward and take the first step to help the helpless. "Establishing and running organisations takes 24-hour dedication. My life is devoted to them, because human service (Sewa) is service (Sewa) of God.”
Despite the terrible conditions the women of Sindh are currently living in, with the continued support from NGOs and the international community, the future can bring better fortune.
Khadim says, “We are hopeful that one day women in Sindh will have the right to decide things for themselves and get everything they need.
"It will take a long time for women in Sindh to be empowered though: advocacy for their rights may not be until after the next generation, because changes in culture take a long time”.