Despite her joy at being a mother for the first time, one young woman in the flooded Sindh province of Pakistan worries about what the future holds for her family–a future that is uncertain for seven million people across the flood-ravaged country who remain without adequate shelter as the winter approaches.
The road heading towards Qaimjatoi, in Dadu district in Pakistan’s southern Sindh looked like it was disappearing into the river. A week ago, it was impassable; now, it was still surrounded by flooded rice fields, but most of the road had, at last, re-emerged from the waters.
All around us, rice fields and trees were submerged.
We were going to meet 18-year-old Sakina Ghaincha, living with hundreds of other displaced families on a narrow ridge of an elevated embankment. The families are living here in makeshift wooden shelters, with straw mats hung over the top as a roof. Colourful hand-stitched patchwork quilts, called rili and made locally, were strung along the sides of some shacks, affording families a little privacy and also some warmth when night temperatures drop.
Many people could see their flooded villages from the elevated bank, but couldn’t get back to them yet because the flood waters were still several feet high. For most, boat travel remained the only way in and out.
Sakina comes from Qaimjatoi, just a kilometer from where she’s sheltering. Heavily pregnant, she struggled through knee-high waters when the floods came in August. Two days later, she gave birth to a baby boy, Ghous Bux, in the open air.
“He’s our ray of hope in these difficult times”, she told me, shyly. “I was so happy after my son’s birth. It’s a miracle for us.”
Her son was her first child. There were no health facilities; but Sakina was lucky to find a traditional birth attendant who had also fled a flood-hit village and was sheltering on the same embankment.
Sakina also said she was very pleased to receive hygiene help and advice from Oxfam and its partner, SAFWCO, or the Sindh Agricultural and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organization, who have been working with the community to keep the area clean, distribute hygiene kits, provide water, and build toilets.
“They were the first organizations to work here,” Sakina said. “We’ve sat down with the health workers to hear about the importance of handwashing – how it can prevent disease – and good hygiene.
“Now I can properly take care of my son and give him a wash with soap. We have buckets to store water and I can take a bath. We had nothing before.”
Sakina smiles as her son wakes and wants feeding. She’s determined to provide him everything she never had – including an education, a chance to get qualifications, and a good job.
Despite her joy at being a mother, Sakina worries about the future. Her family house was completely destroyed in the floods. Her husband, a tenant farmer, will be unlikely to begin farming his land for at least six months as it is still under water. They lost their rice crop just before harvest-time.
She also feels anxious at the lack of privacy she has when she breast-feeds her son in her road-side shack. Trucks, motorbikes, cars, and animal-drawn carts all drive past as we talk.
“We have no idea what the future will bring. We just live here day to day,” said Sakina. “If we go back home, there’s nothing for us; and nowhere to live. We’re worried about finding work to earn money to feed our family”.
The daily difficulties and the approaching winter months are a worry not just for Sakina but for tens of thousands of other families in Sindh – the region that was the worst-affected by the floods, and where more than a million people still remain displaced because stagnant flood waters remain high.
“My only hope right now is my son”, Sakina said. “Because of my son I have hope.”
As winter approaches, countless people in Pakistan are still reeling from the effects of severe flooding earlier this year that washed away homes, crops, and jobs. Seven million people do not have adequate shelter; 10 million need immediate food assistance; and large sections of Sindh, a province in the south, remain underwater.
From experience, Oxfam knows that disasters like these often hit women hardest. In the emergency response that is now assisting more than 1.2 million people, the organization is paying particular attention to the needs of Pakistani women as they strive to help their families and maintain their dignity.
Woman-to-woman interviews between field staffers and members of the community have helped Oxfam shape its emergency programs to reflect the perspective and requirements of women. With so much material loss across the provinces, one of Oxfam’s first interventions in Swat was to inject cash into households by paying people to help rebuild roads and clean irrigation channels. For men, that kind of work is fine. But what could the women do? Culturally, they needed to find work they could do within their homes -- and that wouldn’t require them to gather in large numbers, which they said could raise security risks.
After discussions, the answer became clear: employ women to use their traditional skills to make shawls, jumpers, and quilts. Many people lost these items in the flood and there is a great need locally. An Oxfam local partner organization known as Lasoona will collect the goods and distribute them to others in need. In exchange for their work, the women who sew are earning 5,600 rupees—the same amount as the men do for their labors.
For many, this is the first time they have had paid work and the first time they’ve had their own money—both a delight.
‘I no longer feel I’m just a tool for cooking, or a tool for cleaning,’ said one woman named Shaheen.
‘It’s our first time to be earning money. We are very happy and we are very satisfied. We want it again and again and again,” said another woman named Zahirat. “It makes us feel like we are standing on our own feet, that we are not so dependent, because we don’t have to ask our fathers or our husbands for money for underwear, children’s clothes, or other items.”
And as important as money, perhaps, is the peace of mind the work has brought, especially during such challenging times.
“We have been through a big trauma here and we are finding this work is helping us,” said a woman named Mahran. “We have to concentrate on the work. There is a lot of detail. It takes our minds off what has happened.”
Adding to that peace of mind is dignity—something that disasters can snatch away in a second. In Pakistan, Oxfam has been working hard to ensure that women have the means to keep it.
In Swat, cultural norms prevent women from attending general distributions of emergency goods. At one distribution, a large banner depicted the contents of hygiene kits that families would receive. To enable women to learn what would be in the kits, Oxfam distributed leaflets among them with the same information that was on the banner—including photos for those who were unable to read.
Among the goods in the kits are cloths for menstruation—a necessity for women, but not something they would have had time to grab from their homes in the scramble to save themselves and their children from the rising flood waters.
“Before we used to use old cloth for sanitary protection, but you have supplied us with new cloth especially for this purpose. We are very happy you did this because it has solved some of our problems,” said a woman named Zakia.
And even better, the kits contain soap for washing the cloths and other laundry. Soap hasn’t always been readily available, and with it Oxfam has been holding discussions on hygiene awareness in women-only groups.
‘Before, we didn’t care for the cloths we used,” said a woman named Talemanan. “We didn’t understand the importance of thoroughly cleaning them, especially with soap, but now we do and we are very happy because the irritations we suffered from before have now gone. And we are passing this information on to all the women.”
Normally women would have somewhere private to wash the sanitary cloth and themselves. Oxfam has been working to ensure that privacy is available in the camps for displaced people, as well, by designing latrines and washing areas that meet the women’s particular needs.
”With these latrines you have made, the privacy issue for us women has been solved,” said a woman name Bakhtraga, “and we are very, very happy.”
In the crowded camps of Pakistan, parents talk to Oxfam's Jane Beesley about the importance and challenges of keeping their families clean.
“The water came very fast. We could only save our children, ourselves, and some clothes,” says a young mother, giving voice to a common experience of those uprooted by the floods in Pakistan.
In the midst of disasters where so many people have lost so much, why does Oxfam make providing soap such a high priority?
First and foremost, it’s because washing hands with soap is such an effective way to prevent the spread of diarrheal disease – which, under the difficult conditions of camp life, can be debilitating and even fatal.
But in emergencies, people have the right not only to health and safety but also to dignity. Soap enables a family to bathe and to wear clean clothes – simple acts with the power to restore a measure of well-being.
In the Pakistan flood emergency, Oxfam has distributed hygiene materials to more than half a million people. They include towels, water-purification tablets, sanitary pads, water buckets, and – no surprise - soap.
Check out this video, featuring our Director of Humanitarian Response, Michael Delaney.
The flow of bad news out of Pakistan is unrelenting: more than 20 million people have been affected by the flood disaster, more than eight million acres of crops have been lost, nearly two million homes have been damaged or destroyed, and more than 600,000 people have contracted a dangerous form of diarrhea.
Yet, when Oxfam’s Mubashar Hasan visited children in a camp in Nowshera, what struck him was their resilience.
“I spent around an hour and half in this camp discovering how the children were passing their time,” wrote Hasan in a recent blog. “Like children everywhere, they were playing. Blowing bubbles and playing noughts and crosses [tic tac toe].”
The heat is scorching and the flies are bad, but the children here are experts at making the best of things, and Hasan was greeted with smiles.
“It requires a lot of courage to smile when there is little or no food to eat, no home to live in, very little clean water to drink, no bed to sleep in, and no air conditioning or fan to cool down the burning temperature,” writes Hasan.
Courage is what the children of Pakistan’s floods have in abundance. That, and a sense of play.
A fourth grader named Rejagul introduced himself. His school is closed - one of more than 8,000 damaged or destroyed by the floods, and he lives in a settlement near a camp where Oxfam is providing clean drinking water. How does he spend his time?
“We run in this camp. We jump into the muddy water. We love to play cricket every day.”
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