In the narrow lanes of Islampur, the faint scent of fallen pine cones barely veils the more powerful stench coming from the gutter dug into the sides of the houses, carrying off effluence into a sewer. It shall eventually find its way into what were once the pristine waters of the River Swat, channeling snow-melt from the loftiest peaks in the world to the fields of the valley known once as Uddhayana — the Land of Gardens.
I peer through one of the slightly ajar doors behind which usher the sounds of wooden looms clacking in the hushed afternoon air. There is a young boy seated in the middle of a sunken pit, passing gossamer fine thread from a spindle through the weave of the shawl slowly emerging from the belly of the primeval wooden structure. Gently pushing the thread into place, he glances at me shyly, smiling at his achievement, or perhaps at his own discomfort of having a woman gaze at him.
I turn my attention to the older man seated at a similar loom alongside the young boy. We talk about the ancient weaving industry in this region which has suffered greatly since the militant insurgency starting in 2006 and ending with the military operation in 2009. The tourism trade did not pick up after the media carried stories of the terrible atrocities committed against unarmed civilians, men and women alike. And with the falling numbers of visitors, fell the volume of trade in locally produced crafts, rendering families poorer than they had ever been.
The state has failed the nation time and time again; this time, the willful neglect of human and especially women’s lives may not bode well
The weaver, Matiurahman, took me to his home to meet with the women in his family. We walk through the meandering lanes, houses leaning against each other like crowds at a busy bus stop, and we enter his home built in the traditional courtyard style. His sister sits at the spinning wheel winding thread onto the spindles from which the most exquisite shawls shall be woven. His wife, a lovely young woman with three young children clinging to her like goats on a sloping terrace, runs off to the kitchen to prepare fragrant tea sweetened with gur, my favourite beverage on a cold winter’s day.
But it is the height of summer in the valley of Swat. Fields have yielded their produce, while orchards struggle to produce their fruit despite the vagaries of the weather in recent times. I look at the shawls which Matiurahman places before me, each one hand-made, each one lovely, and I imagine the care that has gone into weaving this enchanting piece. Matiurahman is reasonably well-educated, he can read and write and is able to produce a visiting card for me to keep in touch with him. I promise him that I shall be back, keen to help him and others like him to revitalise the crafts industry in a valley which bore the brunt of the brutality of militancy and extremism.
Before leaving I stop to speak to the children and their mother — she must be in her early 20s, and has already borne four children. With hardly any services in the public sector which would help her and her husband to plan their family, helping them to match their resources with the nutritional, educational and material needs of their children, she will probably bear more children. Healthier than most women I have met in the villages of Swat, she says she does not have a choice in the matter — women do not have the privilege or the right to determine their own fertility. She may be able to sustain several more pregnancies, each one depleting her further with depleting resources and scarcer access to nourishing food. But others are vulnerable to the risk of mortality and morbidity, many, too many losing their lives while giving life to their children, to the future of this nation.
In Pakistan, 276 women die for every hundred thousand births. Some 54 new-born children die for every 1000 births. In Iran, only 30 women die and in Sri Lanka only 34 women lose their lives to complications per hundred thousand births.
This week saw the launch of the United Nations State of the World’s Midwifery Report. In Pakistan, 276 women die for every hundred thousand births. Some 54 new-born children die for every 1,000 births. In Iran, only 30 women die and in Sri Lanka only 34 women lose their lives to complications per hundred thousand births. Pakistan’s indicators for maternal and child health lag behind those of Bangladesh; despite having shared part of our history with that country. Perhaps the fact that in Bangladesh and other countries where governments have committed themselves to investing in people, not just in the building of profit-making and commission-granting infrastructure, the priorities of their budgetary allocations are placed within the framework of the rights of citizens, not the rights of corporate capitalism. The fact that the Public Sector Development Programme for 2014-2015 has been slashed by 2.8pc does not augur well for the lives of men, women and children who are the nation, but not the state. Less than 2pc of the annual budget has been spent on health across the country.
In the most populous province, Punjab; the largest public sector hospital attending to women’s lives and deaths and the birth of this nation’s future is budgeted for this year at Rs560m. The monstrous flyover which shall eat up two and half canals of this hospital’s property, is budgeted at Rs4bn.
It was in the narrow lanes of an ancient weaver’s settlement in the ravaged valley of Swat that I learnt of the many homes from where young boys were sent forth to join the legions of the militants who used them as suicide bombers and soldiers in this unholy war. The connection between that unforgivable travesty and this other one which takes shape beneath our noses as one woman dies after another and one flyover curls over or under another one; concrete choking us while tarmac absorbs the heat of a vengeful sun? Many of the boys who joined the militants had no mothers, for those women had died in the process of giving life.
It does not take a degree in nuclear science to figure out the mathematics of negligence or the geometry of the nexus of crime. But it does take a sane mind and a compassionate heart to develop a vision where the lives of the nation are paramount. Can we say that the state is in possession of one or the other? The silence on this question is cause for deep concern, for within it breeds the malevolent beast we are nurturing, the one that shall consume as while we are busy planning the next underpass and metro bus route; all roads leading to the deepest pit imaginable.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 15th, 2014