PAKISTAN: Female IDPs Struggle in Unfamiliar Settings

Monday, May 18, 2009
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Attracted by loud bickering, a small group of people surround a rickshaw near a market in Islamabad. Two women dressed in ‘burqas' are arguing with the rickshaw driver.

"They said they wanted to be taken to the shops. Now they are not paying me enough for bringing them here,” the driver complained. The fact that the two women only spoke Pashto, spoken mainly in northern areas, compounded the problem.

"We simply want to buy basic provisions. But he is asking for Rs 50 [64 US cents] to bring us here, five minutes from where we live,” Zuqaina Bibi, 55, told IRIN. Her daughter-in-law, Gul Zara, agreed.

The two women have never shopped before, never used local transport on their own: This is the first time they have left their village in Lower Dir, North West Frontier Province (NWFP) - something forced on them by clashes between government forces and militants in the area.

“I have remained within the four walls of our house since the day I was married, 35 years ago. I have left it and our small courtyard on only a few occasions,” Zuqaina Bibi said. But now, she, her daughter-in-law, two daughters and three grandchildren must fend for themselves.

“My son brought us here so we would be safe. He had to go back to manage the land and take care of our livestock,” she explained. “Our land and animals are all we have so we must take care of them even when bombs fall.”

Unfamiliar with the world beyond their villages, women on their own in large cities and camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mardan, Swabi (both in NWFP) and elsewhere, face a difficult time.

“Very lost”

Rubina Javed, who has been visiting families based at the G-7 camp in Islamabad (to offer help as part of an effort by a political party), said: “Lots of the women here seem very lost. They have no idea how to seek medical help or even how to approach camp organisers.”

Women also refuse to allow male doctors to treat them. “We really need more women doctors at the camps and wherever the IDPs are based,” said Javed.

“First we lived in a tent in a small camp run by a local NGO but it is difficult on our own. My brother, who was the only male with us, has gone back to Swat to try and persuade our aged grandmother to come down. She had refused to leave our family home near Mingora,” said Aneesa Khan, 24, who has helped her mother and five younger siblings move to rented accommodation.

“But now, because we have paid advance rent we are really short of cash, and can barely manage to buy food,” she said. The family has no income. Aneesa, educated till grade 10, said: “Nobody here wants to employ me as a teacher because there are so many more highly educated women here.”

Difficulty adjusting

Women living with host families also face problems. “My children refuse to eat the food cooked here. There are too many spices in it, but we cannot complain because we have nowhere else to go,” said Dilbahar Bibi, 35, who is living in Islamabad with distant cousins.

She said her youngest son, aged two, has had diarrhoea for over a week but she has no money to take him to a doctor.

Adding to the concerns for many women is fear for the safety of people left behind. “Yesterday I heard people had been killed at our village near Imam Dehri [village] in Swat. My husband and father-in-law are still up there and I am concerned for them,” said Urooj Bibi, 40.

The situation is similar for many other women. “We are in a new world. It is difficult to manage in it,” said Aneesa Bibi.

Limited statistics

There are no statistics available on the number of women IDPs, but a spokeswoman of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Arianne Rummery, said 835,226 people had been displaced since 2 May and the number continues to climb as more flee Swat and other places.

Jerome Akram, head of programmes for UK-based Islamic Relief Worldwide, Pakistan, said: “People have fled their villages with nothing but the clothes they have on. They are in urgent need of basic items such as hygiene kits, household kits and kitchen kits. A large number of children are traumatised and need urgent psycho-social support as well as protection.”