RESCUER Munira Barkat in a training session.
RESCUER Munira Barkat in a training session.

KARACHI: Few people know that behind the happy demeanour, recruiting people and building relationships with hundreds of employers and employees, 28-year-old Munira Barkat, a human resource person, in a Karachi-based organisation, is a woman who doubles as a serious volunteer and rescues people from imminent danger.

She is one of the six women rescuers in a team of 22 in Karachi, trained to go inside collapsed or burning buildings and rescue people trapped there. And though not an expert swimmer, she says, she can even help bring a near-drowning person to shore through techniques she’s been taught.

But in the bigger scheme of things, she is among the 50,000 volunteers (almost half of whom are women) trained by the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Pakistan (AKAH-P) in community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM), part of which includes rescuing people in a disaster.

Founded in 1998 as FOCUS Pakistan, AKAH-P has been providing rescue services across Pakistan, through people like Barkat.

‘I feel blessed that I am called upon to help people’

She can do anything her male counterparts can from using heavy machinery to digging and removing rubble and debris, to tying ropes to descend from buildings while carrying an injured person, or crossing a river hanging upside down by a rope, to operating sensitive gadgets like vibraphone and snake-eye camera to locate those in distress.

She is adept at using ropes, harnesses and zip lines to handle victims. From providing first aid to more specialised handling in case of broken bones, head, neck and back injuries etc, Barkat can do all and more.

“Our work requires physical fitness, strong nerves, patience and perseverance,” she said, as any wrong move can mean the difference between life and death.

She has been with the search and rescue team since 2013, preparing religiously once every month by carrying out simulations. But it was not until seven years later, in 2020, when a five-storey building collapsed in Golimar, that her years of training were put to the test in a three-day search and rescue mission. They camped inside a girls’ madressah till everyone was pulled out from the debris. “There was no untoward incident of rudeness and we were treated with a lot of respect,” she said.

“When we reached the place of the accident, we were told women were buried in the rubble,” she says and recalls how they snaked their way through the huge crowd of “thousands and thousands” of onlookers and reached the spot. “The survivors begged us to help their women buried inside,” she added.

“During disasters, in a traditional society like Pakistan’s, families are particularly concerned about the privacy of their female members. Therefore, to deal with such situations and help the women, the presence of female rescue teams is critical,” Nawab Ali Khan, chief executive officer, AKAH-P, told Dawn.

Training and real life

Once inside, the five female rescuers were able to pull out three dead bodies of women. “Training is quite different from real life,” she said. For instance, she explained how the women rescuers had to ensure the body parts of one of the dead women were put together in a decent enough state before taking it up to the survivors waiting on the street. “Thankfully, we had a trained nurse among us who was able to take the lead and directed us how to handle the body of the deceased,” said Barkat.

At the same time, she said: “The male rescuers were wonderful, and while a few provided proper purdah, I remember one lit an incense [stick] to reduce the strong odour emanating from the decomposed body,” she recalled. “I can never get that whiff of death out of me!”

But that has not deterred Barkat from her volunteer work as a rescuer. “If anything, it has made me more resolute. I feel blessed that I am called upon to help people,” she said. “I feel a certain unexplainable sense of pride when I don my green dungarees. There is a lot of respect that comes with this uniform,” she added.

The Golimar incident may have left an impact on Barkat, but it has made her question the sheer negligence of those in power who have allowed “Karachi to become a haphazard concrete jungle,” she lamented. “Why was no action taken as soon as illegal construction started atop the existing two storeys?” she said, adding that lives are lost because laws are openly disregarded.

But search and rescue is just one part of AKAH-P. It is making a “conscious effort to educate and train women” and prepare them for disaster situations to help themselves and other members of their family and community at large, said Khan.

“Females make [up] about 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population and it is observed that in disaster situations they suffer the most. The reason for this is lack of awareness, education, skills, and cultural issues. As the climate change-induced and other natural disasters have increased manifold, the vulnerability of the female population in such a situation has increased proportionately.”

In fact, last year it received the 2020 World Habitat Award for its Hazard Vulnerability and Risk Assessments (HVRAs), that they carry out in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, using science, technology and local knowledge to manage future risks due to disasters and plan the habitat accordingly.

After completion of the HVRAs, they train the villagers about community-based disaster risk management and women are always a part of such training. Many are taught to monitor and take data from the early warning systems and weather stations that have been installed to warn of avalanches, landslides and flash floods.

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2021

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