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Women's security in disaster situations

31 October 2005

I’m in Pakistan, working for the earthquake emergency relief programme. The fear that we haven’t got enough tents and food supplies out to the remotest areas is still very real; new stories emerge every day of entire villages that have yet to receive aid, and these stories send the aid agencies into panic. The stories could be false. But what, says a team leader of one of the largest agencies, if the stories are true, and we haven’t made any provisions for these people? With winter fast approaching—and the weather in the two worst affected regions, N.W.F.P and Kashmir can be severe indeed— we’re running against the clock. In the midst of these concerns about providing shelter, food and health care, other concerns are also now being raised. A key issue is protection. This is usually understood as protection of the most vulnerable: women; children; the elderly and the ill. I would like to here just say a few words about women.

At the village level, people live in tightly established group formations. One way of understanding this as it relates to women’s interaction with other women, is to think of concentric circles. In the first inner circle is one’s immediate family. In the second circle is one’s extended family and in the third, is one’s village. There may be more circles before the last is reached: and these may be defined by class, educational background etc. These, then, are the groups within which one moves. Following the quake, these circles have been displaced and in the shake-up, people who would not normally intermingle, have been thrown into close proximity with one another. Their movement, has necessarily therefore, become restricted. The binary options open to them are that they will either remain as they presently are, or they will adapt to their new society.

This issue of women’s free mobility has to it another dimension, and this has to do with women’s relation to men. Village women—both those who observe purdah and those who do not—will often follow a code which does not allow any contact with men outside of their immediate family (ghair mehram). In the camps, the devastated villages and the towns, such codes are now difficult to observe. In many cases, with the death of their husbands and their elders, women have become the head of households. They now have to deal not only with men who are strangers, but also with men who are, in this patriarchal society, the face of public authority.

As Pakistan is currently being ruled, yet again, by a military quasi-dictatorship, the presence of the army is strong in the country. It is also a strong force in the aid effort; flying the helicopters that drop shelter kits and food to villages whose roads have been made un-traversable; traveling by foot to these same regions, and also, either independently, or in conjunction with NGOs, running the camps. It is their presence in the latter which has to be seen as a potential threat to women’s lives, for in recent years there have been numerous cases where soldiers, employed as peacemakers, have abused and raped women (one thinks of the incidents in Africa which received wide coverage). Taking cognizance of this possibility, NGOs are stepping up their activities to put in place mechanisms to protect women. The language used is that we ‘need to establish women and child friendly spaces’. What this translates into is a space where women can meet, talk and develop ways of protecting themselves and their children. How easy or difficult it will be to create such a space and such a sensibility given the constraints of closed group identities, and an unwillingness to move outside of one’s familiar societal patterns, has yet to be seen.

Last evening, before the daily UN led meeting which closes the day, NGOs working in, or interested in working on protection, met. Of all the things we agreed upon, perhaps the most important was that the earthquake survivors (but especially women and children) have to be safeguarded from the possibility of abuse by those who have taken on for themselves the role of their protectors. The problem is that NGOs are, as it is, stretched; few will have the manpower to replace the services the army is offering. The quicker the local civil administration takes over the camps and the role the army is playing there, the more relaxed we can all feel.

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