One year after Pakistan floods, women continue struggle to rebuild life and livelihood

Bushra Khaliq

August 5, 2011

One year ago during the month of July/August, the floodwaters that ravaged southern parts of Pakistan have long receded. Though gone are the makeshift tent camps on roadsides but revival of normal life and livelihood still remain a challenge. Thousands continue a daily struggle to support their families and re-establish livelihoods. As a new monsoon season is on full swing, last year’s trauma and economic pain still linger. While last year’s victims struggle to recover, others now worry that changing world weather patterns will cause renewed flooding.

The devastation caused by the 2010 floods was worst in Pakistan’s history; almost 2,000 deaths, nearly 20 million displaced or affected and one-fifth of the country went under water. The deluge inflicted unprecedented catastrophic damage on a country already reeling from the effects of US-led war on terrorism. A year later, the picture is dismal.

Although many flood refugees have returned homes but little is known to the world about their miserable conditions and stories of struggle, to combat the horrific effects on lives and livelihoods. Particularly the women who are the worst-hit still facing multiple challenges after one year. Their work burden is multiplied. While husbands and male members in poor families, being daily wagers, are struggling to find sources of livelihood, women remain busy in rebuilding their damaged shelters and dwellings. In small villages and hamlets, these women are making bricks and plastering their mud, half-cemented houses. The ones who have finished the reconstruction work are out in the fields, assisting their tilling husbands. Rest or respite seems a rare thing.

Lost possessions either have been replaced at higher costs or they have been forced to do without. Many marriageable girls who lost their dowry and valuables are making a fresh start. A new culture of collective marriages, previously unknown in these areas, is gaining ground. Unfortunately it is also giving rise to girls’ early marriages. Although the custom of girls’ marrying early already exists, post-flood conditions have provided a new impetus to the trend. The only way to effectively tackle the problem is through initiating women-focused anti-poverty programs. Schemes to allocate state land or distribute livestock among poor women would be helpful.

Another particular problem is women’s health. During the flood, pregnant women were able to find pre- and post-natal care in the emergency medical camps. But the moment the relief phase was over, these women were abandoned. They are still vulnerable to reproductive-related diseases. Women and children also face nutritional problems because they do not have access to a healthy diet. In fact those who lost their livestock are deprived both of milk and of a permanent livelihood.

The government-provided compensation money has been unevenly distributed. Widows and female-headed families faced discrimination with the distribution of Watan cards (relief money) as well as in rehabilitation programs. Despite tall claims, the government has not succeeded in decreasing the level of poverty among women over the year. While donors promised $600 million in aid, little has arrived. As a result, price hikes and decreasing options impact poor families and women more severely.

Last month when I revisited Dera Shahwala, a small village in the district of Muzaffargarh. It was one of the worst-hit areas in southern Punjab. Things had not much changed since my visit shortly after the floods. Work on roads, embankments and water courses/channels is evident, but restoring the resources of everyday life have not yet been resolved. One of the main sources of income for poor landless women in this area is cotton picking. The crop has been lost but there is no alternative. In some cases the fertile land has been permanently replaced with rough sand, thus depriving women of their livelihood.

A flood affectee, here, Myriam Bibi, recalled that flood water washed away everything. She lost most of the house and its contents. She lives in a newly erected small room while her children are staying with relatives. Rebuilding her house brick by brick means the work progresses slowly. The house remains a roofless ruin. “Relatives and friends help us, but not everyone is so lucky. It is very difficult to rebuild our life,” she said. “I don’t see in the coming two/three years that I will have my house completely rebuilt.”

Aysha Bibi, a farmer’s wife and young mother of five, pointed out that the floods, however ‘natural’, were profoundly discriminatory. They effected some more than others. “We lost our dwelling and the only cow; now we cannot purchase a new one. I cannot provide milk to my children. Whatever money we had is spent on the reconstruction of our home.

Another resident, Zohra Begum remarked that her 7-member family picked up and moved immediately after the floods. “We have a small piece of land where my 16-year daughter and I have to work longer hours to assist my husband in the fields. We owe debt to our relatives and we have to repay it. My two children, who used to go school, must stay at home to look after the siblings. When we first got here there were facilities for us. But they have since been taken away. Now people just come and talk and talk–but they do not give us any help.”

Rumors of another massive flood also leave residents on edge. Those who live in some areas close to the Indus River suffer from sleepless nights. “It is a mental torture when we hear that there might be another monsoon flood,” said 36-year-old Parveen, who is still struggling to rebuild her damaged home.