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Flooded Out:

Fighting the Exclusion of Women in Pakistan's Recovery

by Sara Hahn

"We have unfortunately been on the front line of this disaster—for us it is life before and life after the floods. We experienced how women were ignored in conflict response before, and it is even worse now.”

—An internally displaced women in Pakistan, reporting to AJWS grantee PODA

When flooding hit Pakistan in July of 2010, killing over 2,000 people1 and leaving at least 18 million displaced,2 it impacted women the hardest. Eighty-five percent of the people uprooted from their homes—many from rural communities that were already unstable—were women and children, including 500,000 pregnant women.3 Now, thousands remain in internally-displaced persons camps, waiting for a time when they can return to their lives.

But women’s recovery from this disaster has been impeded by a patriarchal system that, in many of Pakistan’s rural regions, excludes them from the rebuilding process and further disempowers them.4 The Pakistani government is trying its best by providing compensation for property lost in the flooding, but due to lack of documentation for most women, the computerized system has not disseminated the funds to women. Since men are considered the traditional heads of family in Pakistani society, the system has primarily compensated the male heads of household and denied women’s requests for equal treatment.

Despite this formidable obstacle, many Pakistani women are actively engaged in flood relief and are working to correct discriminatory practices like this one. AJWS grantee PODA, the Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy—which, in the early months after the floods focused on providing displaced women with food, water, sanitation, clothing and shelter—is empowering women to take on this issue.

PODA’s director, Sameena Nazir, explains that even though women are the primary caretakers of livestock and are responsible for much of the farming in Pakistan, the prerequisites for compensation largely exclude women. In order to access aid, the government has to confirm the identity of the applicant, which requires a national identification card. Many women lack this ID card, either because they live too far from the district capital to register for it, or because their husbands deny them permission to do so. Other women have ID but can’t access it because their husbands, fathers, uncles or brothers hold all of their financial documents. And still others don’t recognize the importance of the card because they are illiterate.

This issue has been especially problematic for widows. According to Nazir, a woman seeking independence from her husband’s family can be denied compensation by her father-in-law if he wishes to detain her from moving away with her children.

“So women aren’t allowed to make their own decisions,” Nazir says. “Their own agency is not accepted. There are a lot of issues like that, where we see gender discrimination.”

PODA is working to help women gain agency over their financial recovery, ensuring that flood relief doesn’t remain only in the hands of men. PODA has developed a charter of rights for women in disaster situations and recommendations that it has disseminated to local people, the Pakistani government and the UN, advocating for a more inclusive system that would give women greater access to resources.

“Basically,” says Nazir, “we are saying that you cannot punish a woman because the man in the house doesn't want to give her identification. Women should be able to bring witnesses, represent themselves, and that should be enough. The government and the UN systems should be able to tackle this problem, and come up with an affirmative action program. If we already know that women in our society are disadvantaged, if they face these extra burdens because they are rural and can’t read and write, then all of us need to make an extra effort to reach out to these women and make sure they can get an ID card. We are advocating and pushing that women should not be discriminated against in this process.”

Meanwhile, PODA is making inroads that will support women who are taking control of their own destinies. Its staff are advocating for reform of land laws that will give women farmers greater access to farmland to re-establish livelihoods. And as the floods abate, the need for women’s full participation only increases. Says Nazir: “Recovery will not be complete in Pakistan until women’s voices and rights are an integral part of the rebuilding process.”

Unfortunately, this process will be a long one; it will be years before those affected by the floods are fully recovered. PODA witnessed entire communities destroyed: “Villages have disappeared,” Nazir says. “People have lost everything they had. Millions are homeless right now.”

Media portrayals of Pakistan often fail to depict this, focusing instead on violence among extremists on the margins. AJWS views this crisis in personal terms, as it does every natural disaster that leaves regular people devastated and in need of aid—as an opportunity to exercise our Jewish responsibility to help the stranger and pursue justice in the world.

Nazir urges Americans to remember that most Pakistanis seek basic liberties, safety and equality--not conflict. Emphasizing the universality of her people’s struggle, she says: “Mothers are mothers all over the world, and children are children all over the world, no matter what their nationality or religion may be.”

“Most Pakistanis work hard to pay their bills, feed their families and to send their children to schools. They want peace, not war. After the floods, that’s the Pakistan that we are trying to build, with the help of our supporters. That’s the Pakistan we need you to help us continue to make.”


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About AJWS

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

AJWS has received an “A” rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy since 2004 and a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for nine years. AJWS also meets all 20 of Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability.


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