Pakistan: Floods expose women to highest risk of starvation, disease, kidnapping, & sexual abuse Print E-mail

 Dublin ~ Sunday September 12 2010

Pakistani women bear brunt of flood catastrophe

By 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 in Pakistan
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 September 1 2010

500,000 Pregnant Women at Risk in Pakistan Floods

By Aprille Muscara

Govt admits there were still flood victims to be reached. (AFP: A Majeed)
UNITED NATIONS: Aid groups and U.N. agencies are raising the alarm over the vulnerability of pregnant women and babies in flood ravaged Pakistan.

Over the past month the unprecedented monsoon-induced floods have affected nearly 18 million people - 1,600 lives have already been lost, according to U.N. estimates.

"We know that mothers are giving birth in flimsy or crowded shelters, steps away from stagnant water and debris," said Sonia Kush, director of emergency preparedness and response at Save the Children. "And we know the dangers for newborns are extreme - the first hours and days of a child’s life in the developing world are the riskiest, even without the added complications posed by a disaster of this scope. Displacement, increased impoverishment, crowded living conditions, disease and infection are further imperilling the lives of mothers and their newborn babies in Pakistan."

Save the Children says that 100,000 women are due to give birth in the next month and according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 500,000 flood-affected pregnant women are currently in their second or third trimesters. Nearly 500,000 newborns are expected to be born in the coming half year.

"We must ensure the health and safety of all these women and their babies," U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan Martin Mogwanja said. "This disaster has already affected almost 18 million people. We don’t want it to also affect half a million babies who are not born yet."

Paul Garwood, communications officer for WHO’s Health Action in Crises program, told IPS that the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) has been particularly active in providing reproductive health care in the relief efforts thus far. The U.N. humanitarian office says that UNFPA has assisted in the safe delivery of an estimated 5,600 babies since the floods began and have helped to establish 36 mobile and fixed health clinics that are equipped to handle childbirth and emergency obstetric care.

"WHO is working with other U.N. agencies, government and NGOs to get health facilities operational again as rapidly as possible and also support the sending of mobile teams into affected communities to deliver primary health care and reproductive health services," Garwood told IPS.

Khush said that Save the Children’s fixed and mobile clinics in Pakistan see hundreds of flood-affected people seeking health care daily - including pregnant women, new mothers and children.

In addition to the establishment and restoration of health service centres, another key means to help mothers deliver their babies safely, Garwood told IPS, is "having health workers - often preferably females depending on the social settings - to support and monitor pregnant women leading up to and during their pregnancy."

But UNFPA says that it has encountered challenges in recruiting women health workers, especially female gynaecologists, in the flood-affected areas. And according to the latest U.N. figures, only twenty percent of the six million dollars required for reproductive health care services has been funded thus far. An additional 4.8 million dollars is needed.

Anthony Lake, Executive Director of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), was in Pakistan on Monday and Tuesday to visit flood-affected areas.

"We must step up our humanitarian operations to stave off a potential second wave of disease and misery for millions of families, especially the most vulnerable, women and children," Lake said.

Meanwhile, the U.N. says it still needs forty helicopters to aid in the relief efforts. The floods have drowned bridges and roads, leaving 800,000 people stranded in the western and southern parts of the country, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian office. Helicopters remain the only way to administer aid in certain areas.

The U.N.’s latest figures say that 600,000 square kilometres - an area larger than England - is underwater, over 1.2 million homes have been wiped out, 4.8 million people are still without shelter and 4.3 million hectares of crops have been destroyed, threatening the country’s food security.

An estimated 2.4 million children younger than five-years-old still need food aid, raising concerns about malnutrition, while 3.5 million children are threatened by the onset of water-borne diseases, Save the Children says.

"This is a child survival crisis," said Khush. "Dengue, malaria, diarrhoea and other infections are sickening hundreds of thousands of people. All of these diseases are treatable but can be fatal - especially to children - if not addressed."

And as the floods continue, the number of people who need assistance has risen to eight million since the U.N. launched an appeal for 460 million dollars to fund its emergency response nearly three weeks ago. So far, over seventy percent of this amount has been funded, but officials say the initial appeal was underestimated as needs continue to rise. The appeal is expected to be revised in mid-September.