Salma Khatoon, a 21 years old mother of two children, Asif aged 4 and Gul aged 2, was struggling to provide food for her children after the floods hit her village in the outskirts of Charsadda (KPK). Her husband, a truck driver, could not find work and was unable to bring home any money.
"My husband quarrelled with me when I asked him for food and other necessities. He even hit me and the children. So I stopped asking for anything. But then the flood came and it became very difficult for me to manage. My house got washed away and nothing was left behind. It pained me to see my children crying for milk and food. Some people had received food from the food point (set up by the government) but I did not know where it (food point) was located and how to ask for food."
Then she added,
I had never stepped out of the house on my own before. I was helpless.
This problem was not faced by Salma Khatoon alone.
Women in Pakistan have been subject to extremely repressive cultural practices for ages which limit their rights and access to education, information, and economic and political freedom. These practices have given way to violence against women and girls that became more pronounced in the aftermath of the flood disaster. As villages and homes got flooded and damaged, a large number of women and girls (as part of larger families) were displaced to unfamiliar places (such as camps) which exposed them to multiple threats and risks of gender based violence including harassment, rape and psycho-social disturbances.
For women who had spent most of their lives indoors, within the confines of their homes (especially in rural areas where women only go out for agriculture related labour), sudden exposure to the outside world was not only confusing, it was scary. Hunger, disease, and loss of shelter and livelihood sources affected women and girls the most due to their extreme vulnerability. Incidents of domestic violence and harassment increased and so did the suffering of women and girls.
ActionAid saw the flood as an opportunity to reach the women, girls and the larger communities, and mobilise them towards a positive change, especially in terms of their understanding of gender.
The process of engendering started by organising women around their losses and transforming their despairs into hope by raisin their awareness and understanding of their rights and collective power to claim them. The community organisers met with the women, elders and other community members to inform them about the importance of including women in the relief and rehabilitation process and how women’s empowerment could benefit the entire community.
In Charsadda district of KPK, AAPk in partnership with a local organisation, Blue Veins, ran a women’s mobilisation project where eight Multi Purpose Coordination Committees were formed, each comprising eight to ten community women. Awareness raising sessions on gender issues, violence and human rights were organised to build women’s capacity and understanding. They were linked to government’s line departments and local civil society organisations for networking. Committee Members were encouraged to select their own president and general secretary who were also women from the same community. Representatives of these women’s committees attended UN coordination meetings at the provincial level and raised their issues and concerns. They also lobbied the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) to convince them to establish a gender cell to address women’s issues as a priority.
Similar efforts were made in all other response areas and women and girls were a particular focus of ActionAid’s emergency response given their pre-existing vulnerability (a result of gender-based discrimination), which was exacerbated during the disaster. The food kits, shelter kits and hygienic kits were specifically made keeping in mind the special needs and vulnerabilities of women.
ActionAid supported women - from immediate relief, to promoting their local leadership, facilitating advocacy efforts and provincial and national level campaigns demanding equal access to government’s compensation (Watan cards), women’s participation and inclusion in rehabilitation programmes, government’s accountability, and long term agricultural rehabilitation programme for small growers including women farmers. Communities were supported to flag issues related to women’s and children’s protection as well as women’s mobilisation and access to relief and rehabilitation.
By the end of 2010, we had reached 19,075 HH including over 6,216 sponsored children and their families. Out of which 70,110 (59% of total) were exclusively women and children. Similarly, 691 PWDs and 659 minorities were also reached.
“I attended meetings and learnt that I, being a woman, have equal right to government’s relief support. I learnt where the food points were located and gradually, with other community women, started to go there to collect food supplies.
Earlier my husband had his reservations; he thought these people (social mobilisers) were just wasting our time. ActionAid and Blue veins met with my husband and father in law also and took them in confidence.
I also attended meetings with the NGO people (referring to UN coordination meetings) and I told them how because of floods we had nothing to eat, and our house was also destroyed. A few days later, many women in my community received tents, plastic sheets and household items.” shares Salma Khatoon.
I feel like a different person- something inside me has changed; I am more self assured now. It makes me happy.”