Saturday 17 March 2018

Pakistani women bear brunt of flood catastrophe

MAURICE McQUILLAN of Trocaire in Pakistan

Walking through a makeshift camp for survivors in Kotri, an area in the southern province of Sindh, the sense of fear is thick in the air -- fear for the future after so many people lost everything.

But people are also in despair at the conditions they are forced to endure. At one school we visited, more than 300 people are cramped together in a small building with only three working toilets. Raw sewerage lies pooled where children play.

These confined, pressurised living conditions are taking a desperate toll on the families and communities squatting there.

But walking through these camps it quickly becomes clear that female survivors of this disaster; mothers, sisters and daughters, are suffering the most.

The effects of the devastating floods in Pakistan have destroyed the lives of millions, but the social reality for Pakistani women makes them all the more vulnerable.

In areas I visited the tradition of Purdah, which means 'curtain' in Urdu, is commonplace. Women are not supposed to come in contact with men outside their family.

But women and girls are now cramped in public camps beside hundreds of men who are complete strangers. Trying to sleep, wash or get food and prepare it in these conditions is terrifying and intimidating for them. Finding privacy for sanitation and female hygiene is next to impossible.

Women and children separated from their families in the panic of evacuations are most at risk. In some cases, men stayed behind to protect livestock.

Mothers who became separated from their husbands have to feed their children and care for them -- but they are in a very precarious and stressful situation.

Sometimes they have to queue in public for hours to get food, leaving them exposed and vulnerable.

Tracing and reuniting families must be a key focus in coming weeks. Trocaire is already creating safe places in camps and shelters for children and women to gather. Sometimes that can be as simple as providing adequate lighting near women's toilets.

Working in the cultural reality of Pakistan means that the safety and welfare of vulnerable women and children must be a priority. Many children are travelling alone, having become separated from their parents, and they are at high risk of malnutrition and hunger, infection and disease, abduction or kidnapping, exploitation or abuse.

There simply isn't enough food to go around, but pregnant and breast-feeding women need extra nutrition -- as do children under two years old. We are working, with Irish people's money, to make sure the most vulnerable get the support they need in this unimaginable horror.

I have worked and lived in disaster zones all over the world for over 20 years but have never witnessed a situation like Pakistan. The scale of the flooding and the vulnerability of survivors of this 'slow tsunami' is difficult to describe. The Pakistani people are resilient and determined to rebuild their lives but they can't do it alone. The world must step in now to help them and to rebuild a prosperous and peaceful Pakistan.

Maurice McQuillan is Trocaire's humanitarian manager

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