What the Future Holds for Flood-Affected Pakistanis: Will Zuhra Go to School Again?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP

Zuhra is four and she has recently learned her Sindhi alphabet – 52 letters in all. She wants the world to know about her achievement. When I met Zuhra at the Indus Resource Centre’s (IRC) tent city for the flood affected in Dadu – a small town in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh – she tugged at my sleeve and insisted I listen to her recitation.

Data collected from IRC tent cities in Khairpur, Dadu, and Sehwan in Sindh provides an idea of how women fared the ravaging floods in July through September. Of the 8,089 people housed in these camps, 49 percent were females and 47 percent were children, indicating the prevalence of large family sizes and its implications for women.

The IRC tent city is established under the date palm orchard so that maximum shade and protection from hot sunlight. Photograph courtesy of Aumir Abbas (IRC.)

When I visited the camps quite a number of the flood affected were returning home. The atmosphere was pensive and you could sense the trepidation. They did not know what the future held in store for them. They had managed to survive mainly because the tent cities set up by generous donors had looked after them well. They had been happy here, but how long can individual donors support them?

For the women it was a new experience to have compassionate caregivers look after them – providing them food and shelter as well as protection from violent men, which often include their own husbands. The IRC tent city rules were strict. At the entrance a poster very clearly exhorted: “Enrol your children in camp school. Violence/abuse against women and children is not allowed. If you commit any violence, legal action will be taken.”

Female PILER team members distribute small towels and soap for women’s sanitary needs. Photograph courtesy of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research.

“There were women who had never been to a medical practitioner before in their life,” Dr. Samrina Hashmi, a Karachi-based obstetrician from the Pakistan Medical Association told me. For those who were pregnant, it was a new experience to have their babies delivered in a sterile environment by a health professional who made childbirth a safe, natural process. Previously, these women had their babies delivered by dais – untrained, illiterate birth attendants – who were responsible for the high maternal mortality rate, which official surveys put at 297 for every 10,000 live births. Obstetricians dispute that, however. They believe that the maternal mortality rate is higher.

In the two months following the floods, the Pakistan Medical Association’s gynecology team treated more than 33,845 patients, vaccinated more than 1,570 children, conducted ante-natal check-ups of 604 expectant mothers, and performed 64 safe deliveries. In addition, 6,364 cases were referred to hospitals where more infants were delivered.

For the women who were housed in camps run by civil society organizations working at the grassroots level with women actively involved, tent city life came as a break from the conventional drudgery that had been their lot in rural Pakistan – walking miles every day to fetch water, herding the cattle for grazing, tending to their families’ needs.

IRC tent city in Khairpur. Photograph courtesy of Aumir Abbas.

Sadiqa Salahuddin, the executive director of IRC that runs 100 plus schools in Sindh and had responded to the emergency by setting up camps that housed nearly 8,100 displaced persons, had another story to tell. On the occasion of Eid, a religious festival marking the end of the month of fasting, in mid-September, she wrote on a blog, “Contrary to what we hear and watch on television about the deprivation and gloom among internally displaced persons – no doubt true — Eid was an occasion for happy thanksgiving for the children in our camps.”

The IRC had presented the children with gifts of dresses, shoes, and toys, which overwhelmed them and brought joy in their young lives. Their message to a journalist who reported it in a paper was: “I love you and thanks to all of you who sent us donations and thanks to the untiring efforts of the IRC staff that made this Eid a memorable day for us.”

Zeenat Hisam, senior research associate at the Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research, feels the floods brought to the public an awareness of the extent of rural poverty and deprivation in Pakistan.

“Those who are working on social issues and are involved in field work know the magnitude of deprivation of the rural populace. But others who never venture out of the cities were shocked by the images on television. They saw for the first time the conditions in which people lived before the floods,” she told me.

Unfortunately, Hisam also feels the empathy generated may dry up. “[People] want to forget the bitter truth to which all of us were exposed by the floods–the reality of living in an unjust society.”

The fear is that this window of opportunity for change that opened in the lives of millions – thanks to their exposure to a new world – may close as suddenly. The question that is nagging not only the flood victims but also the donors and camp managers is, “What next?”

Children’s activity during Global Hand-Washing Day. Photograph courtesy of Mr. Bakht Birhamani and Salim Lashari of the IRC.

The good work that brought so much joy to the children and women was no more than a drop in the ocean. But is that now to be denied them? Will little Zuhra be allowed to forget her alphabet or the song she and her playmates learned on global hand washing day? Words they sang for me with such passion at the IRC tent city, “Come, come, come to me/With soap and water friendly be/See how the germs will flee and flee.” The rhyme, the alphabet, and the lessons will inevitably become a part of a buried past if schools are not opened in the villages.

Similarly the women who experienced the ‘luxury’ of health care and learned new lessons in reproductive health and family planning will be back to square one if health facilities are not set up for them and a network of health workers not organized.

The families have to build their homes again – many have been allowed to take their tents with them until they can construct permanent shelters. Many will return to tilling the land for the big landlords who pay them a pittance for their labor. But with standing crops having been destroyed and the next crop not having been sown as the land was underwater at the time of planting, their livelihood is at risk. Those who eked out a meagre living by working for daily wages in neighboring small towns will now find there is no work available.

Anticipating starvation, some NGOs have distributed vegetable seeds for people to plant on a small scale. But at this stage only government intervention on a massive scale can really help. The need is not for dole but for reconstruction projects on a cash-for-work basis to provide jobs to the flood affected. And also for tenancy laws and land reforms so that the exploitation of the tillers may end. The need is to restore people’s dignity.