Women and children in the earthquake hit areas of Pakistan and Kashmir face forced displacement and human rights’ violations, as well as not having proper access to relief supplies, services and economic opportunities. Since the earthquake hit the Hazara region of North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistani-administrated Kashmir, on 8 October 2005, levels of crime, social injustice and poverty increased in the affected areas. Women and children were victims of the deadly earthquake. Their suffering continues to this very day, one year after the earthquake. The Hazara region of NWFP province is one of the most underdeveloped and socially conservative parts of Pakistan, where women are not allowed to go out of their homes. They have no political and social rights and they are barred from casting their votes during elections. Women are at the mercy of their male family members.
Thousands of women and children were displaced by the earthquake, which along with poverty made them vulnerable to substance abuse, HIV/ AIDS, domestic violence, crime, and human trafficking. The quake increased problems for single parents and families accommodating separated or orphaned children. Displaced or orphaned children are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many cases of sexual abuse were reported by the media. Children in earthquake-hit areas are vulnerable to psychological problems, drug use, crime, sexual and economic exploitation, and human trafficking.
Women in the quake areas were used to a protected and restricted lifestyle. Now single women are finding it difficult to build an independent life in male-dominated society. They are more vulnerable because of reduced mobility, traditional barriers, illiteracy and gender bias, and lack of employment opportunities. Women are also deprived of their entitlement to property because of discriminatory inheritance practices and traditions.
Women lack medical treatment
According to a UN report, there are about 17,000 pregnant women in the earthquake zones who are expected to give birth in the next two months. Around 1,600 of them might face major complications and will need surgical assistance. Many of these women will not be able to get medical treatment because there are no facilities available or families will not allow them to go to the hospitals. Many women disabled by the quake were rejected by their families; many are divorced and left in hospitals.
Marriages at a very young age are on the rise because families living in tents and temporary shelters feel it insecure to keep young girls with them. Under-age marriages are creating many social and psychological problems. The absence of toilets, and water for household use, are two main problems faced by the women in the tent villages and temporary shelters. There are just a few toilets for many people and it is not safe to use them at night. Many women did not bath for months and lived in highly unhygienic conditions. These conditions increase the risk of infectious diseases spreading among women and children.
Another winter is looming and there are no proper cooking facilities available in the quake hit areas. Women will be forced to cook out in the open, in extreme cold weather, to feed their families.
Many women suffer from skin diseases other infections, such as chest and respiratory problems. These infections are more prevalent in women than in the men due to the fact that women cannot cook inside the tents. During the snow fall, these women will be even more vulnerable to illness. There are very few female doctors in the quake areas and it is not possible for women to receive medical treatment from a male doctor in these very conservative tribal areas.
The local mullahs and hard-line religious leaders campaign against the presence of female volunteers and NGO staff. Local politicians, from different parties, support the mullahs’ campaign. Under the cover of “Islamic culture and traditions”, the mullahs call for the immediate expulsion of female NGO staff.
Women’s conditions need a radical change to protect them against reactionary ‘traditions’ and feudal ‘culture’. Radical change cannot be brought through minor reforms, as the NGOs seem to think. Real change needs a revolution, in which the rotten capitalist system would be overthrown. Women’s rights and freedoms cannot be guaranteed under capitalism, which is based on exploitation, repression, greed and profits. This system creates the conditions in which reaction flourishes. Only a socialist society can create the conditions in which gender equality and women’s rights and freedom will be protected.