The October 2005 earthquake changed the lives of thousands of women in Pakistan. According to the Pakistan government's Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, the quake - measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale - hit parts of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, some 30,000 km across. It claimed about 73,338 lives, severely wounded another 69,412 people and left 3.5 million homeless.
Now, a year after the disaster and with another harsh winter looming, a quick stocktaking seems in order. The International Federation of the Red Cross has warned of some 400,000 survivors spending another winter without a permanent shelter. For many women, the earthquake has not only radically changed their lives but also age-old social equations.
The 2005 quake is a stark reminder of how calamities - whether natural or human-made - disproportionately affect the lives of women. "The shock and scale of devastation compounded pre-existing gender-specific vulnerabilities emanating from the norms of purdah: gender segregation and female seclusion," Shirkat Gah, a women's NGO observed in its July 2006 bulletin, 'Rising from the Rubble'. This bulletin speaks of women who lost their husbands and children, or were abandoned by their husbands because they were seriously injured. Women in camps complained about being harassed by male camp dwellers. There were cases of trafficking and abduction of women and children that were impossible to follow up amid the chaos that prevailed.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, many women have suddenly been forced to take on the roles of breadwinner or caregiver. Some women are earning for the first time. In a remote village in Mansehra, NWFP, 45-year-old Rukhsana Bibi gathers wood for some families. The sole earning member, she earns Rs 50 a day to feed her five daughters and a husband who lost his sight during the quake. Then there is Sabar Jan, 70, in Meira village, Mansehra. She lost two of her sons and their wives, and is now looking after five orphaned grandchildren in addition to her already ailing husband. "I don't know how long I will survive and what will happen to these poor orphans," she says helplessly, eyes welling up.
The quake has also altered the natural geography of the land. Many streams, for instance, have dried up or changed course. "We now have to walk a good half hour to fetch water and we need to do that three to four times a day," says Shumaila, 21, in a village outside Muzaffarabad. Earlier, she had piped water just outside her home.
Ironically, the quake that so disrupted the lives of thousands of women, has also empowered women. "Women have always been the backbone of the family, even in the highly traditional communities of Kashmir and NWFP. In a crisis, social differences and power structures change, at least for a while. This trigger can be linked to the empowerment of women. There were many women, for instance, who actually buried the dead because there were no men around. Traditionally, women rarely accompany the dead body to the burial grounds, let alone perform the rites," says Kilian Kleinschmidt, Senior Emergency Coordinator, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan. He believes that without women's hard work, many families would not have survived the winter.
"Women were a crucial part of the relief effort, both as part of their community and as part of the countless organizations helping them. Women had to come forward themselves and request support; they had to speak to ensure access to their rights. There are many women-headed households today," says Kleinschmidt. The government's post-quake slogan, 'Build Back Better', ought to refer not only to infrastructure, but also to society. "The challenge now is to ensure that the achievements made during this period of crisis are sustained. Pakistani society needs to provide equal opportunities to women," he stresses.
One way of empowering those who are now heading households or are the sole breadwinners is to equip them with marketable skills. Many women in various camps are being trained in trades such as sewing, kitchen gardening and making fuel-efficient stoves. The 47 camps in the quake zone together house around 29,722 people - an enormous opportunity for change.
For instance, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), funded by UNHCR, works in a camp in Meira in the Kashmir valley. ICMC found that besides helping women gain self-confidence, these training sessions also keep them busy. And interacting with so many others as vulnerable as they are has been a healing process in itself. So far, ICMC has trained 3,966 women. Further sessions are on right now. "They are not only self-sufficient but are also supporting their families. On an average, they earn between Rs 6,000 to 7,000 per month," says a satisfied Vivian Tan of the UNHCR.
Yet, as a second winter looms ahead, survivors are far from settled. Rashida Dohad, Programme Advisor, Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation, an NGO that works with rural communities in the NWFP's Mansehra division, "I see very little reconstruction going on in the NWFP. The people feel their life is in a state of limbo." And this uncertainty is gnawing at women. While she believes that there will be a greater role for women in post-quake social structures, she says, the impact is not visible now. "It's too early. Anger and resentment usually galvanize people. The quake has caused old power relations to break."
Kleinschmidt believes this visibility is more pronounced within civil and community-based organizations, where "many women have been trained as trainers. This has caused some nervousness amongst the religious community, who claim that this was putting traditional values into question."
There is change, though. A year ago, Dorothy Blane, Country Director of Concern, an Irish NGO, was skeptical about seeing the quake as a means of changing this traditionally conservative society. "It was a challenge for women to feel free to raise their voices, and a bigger one for them to be heard."
Recently, Blane met with a women's group that was formed with support from one of Concern's local NGO partners. "The women told me how, before the quake, they did not even have the freedom to organize group meetings like the one we were participating in. But after the quake, these women had been major decision-makers in repair, reconstruction and water schemes. I think the door has opened a little for the women here. They are asking for skills training, and they seem to believe this will receive male support too...I hope this is the case. In any case, I left the meeting feeling optimistic that there is movement in what had been a fairly entrenched area."