Women helping women in distress
On October 15 a carnival of women celebrating their struggle to overcome grief, pain and stress caused by social discrimination and natural disasters was organized by Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA) Islamabad. This festive get together was organized in the premises of Lok Virsa. A very unique organization Sister’s Trust Pakistan, recently formed by renowned development professional Rehana Hashmi arranged a session on UN Resolution 1325. The session was attended by highly motivated, courageous and enterprising women from various nooks and corners of Pakistan. Women from very diverse social, cultural and economic backgrounds participated in the session. However, the narratives of women from the most vulnerable and dispossessed households were full of determination, resolve and confidence in their abilities. The stories of courage, hope and untiring efforts of various women were a feast to one’s ears to say the least. These women had gathered to share their security concerns and stress caused during the recent floods, their responses to threats caused due to dislocation and their needs for further support in the future.
The picture that emerged from the stories of these women was completely different the doom and gloom scenario which has dominated our media. Umme Kalsoom from Muzaffar Garh district said women were given a false sense of security at the time of floods. They were not given any early warning about the imminent danger. When the flood struck their village, women were caught unaware. Most of the houses were wiped off and they could not take any of their belongings with them. In some case women lost their children because they did not know the whereabouts of the children at the moment that flood water entered their settlement. Government, donors and NGOs came to their help but many families could not be reached due to complete lack of preparedness by the Government. Instances of rape and looting of donations received by unprotected families were noticed in some areas. However, victims of rape and violence were told to hush up as “nothing could be done under these unusual circumstances”. Personal, economic and social security needs to be given high priority in future plans.
Irshad another activist from Ganda Singh Wala said that most of women either do not have national identity cards or lost them during the floods. Therefore distribution of funds, watan cards and donations based on the possession of ID cards will deprive most needy women from the support that they deserve. “I am not a highly educated woman. However, I took charge of the things when catastrophe confronted us. Women, everywhere have met the challenges head on and shown their potential to deal with disasters”. With proper guidance women can do much more. Rani from Kot Addu said that dykes and small protective dams were broken to save the lands of rich and powerful. As a result vast swathes of land inhabited by the poor and vulnerable submerged under water. Watan cards were distributed to the affected families without proper planning and led to panic and riots. So many deaths occurred in the camps due to starvation, disease, and unattended child births.
Aftab from Action Aid told the participants that many tenants had paid 50% advance to the landowners for use of agricultural lands. Now crops have been completely destroyed. Compensation paid by the government will go to the landowners and tenants will not be able to claim for compensations. Similarly seeds and fertilizer will also be given to the landowner. Assessment and settlement of the claims by landless families is an important issue worthy of consideration by the government. During this most stressful period Government has not been able to do much because the Local Government elections have been unduly delayed by all provincial governments.
Samar Minallah, a development professional and filmmaker said that during her visit to one of the affected areas she was invited by a young girl to see her “home”. There was nothing left there except for a few bricks. That is what has happened to almost every household, rich or poor. Now everything has to be built from scratch. The challenge before us is humungous. But the energy that these strong, sensitive and active women have brought to this conference is also boundless. Her sentiment was reaffirmed by Shazia, coming from a wealthy landed family from Muzaffar Garh.“Together, we can make the difference. We can build a new world” said Shazia with confidence.
Gulfam from Rojhan- an extremely poor area of Dera Ghazi Khan- said that “illiteracy and absence of Local Government at the time of disaster were two basic causes of devastating impact of floods”. Same thing happened in Jafarabad district of Balochistan. A women teacher from Muzaffarabad, two girls Rabia and Mehvish from Dera Ismail Khan and a very confident one arm lady from Mansehra-Bushra told the audience that with the help of NGOs, philanthropists and Support Organizations like Sungi, they were able to face insurmountable challenges and overcome the most difficult barriers in their way. Participants from Quetta mentioned that shelter for personal security and protection from incidents of rape are they key concerns of women victims of flood.
Dr. Rkhshinda –from creative anger- led the session remarkably well. The session was also addressed by Dr. Zarina Salamat, Samar Minallah, Gulfam Dogar and Alice Anjum. Community spirit, personal resolve and proper technical guidance were three key elements that helped women and vulnerable people survive and start building their lives with hope in the bright future. These three elements need to be strengthened by all those who want to help. In the end, however, it is women helping women who make all the difference.