Women of disaster

Published December 14, 2011

HUMANITARIAN aid organisations estimate that some 1.2 million women of reproductive age are still caught up and marooned in the flooding that washed away their homes and subsistence livelihoods in Sindh.

The total number of women and children affected is said to be no less than four million. The water from the heavy rains in July refuses to go away. This is partly because rainwater drains were breached by the better-off farmers and water was diverted into the fields and settlements of the poor, inundating entire communities. The waterlogged earth refuses to suck in the residue which since has unleashed skin, gastrointestinal diseases and malaria.

Women and children remain the most vulnerable sections of the affected people because of their low social status within their own households; they have little say before adult men in sharing whatever little help gets out to them, as men continue to get the preferential treatment within the social hierarchy. Many a woman is left to her fate, virtually abandoned, with her food and medical needs grossly neglected.

Aid agencies say that the affected women include some 115,000 expecting mothers who are endemically anaemic, malnourished and overburdened with domestic chores and worries even as they struggle to stay alive in highly stressful conditions. Many are in camps perched on hillocks above the water level or in dilapidated public buildings surrounded by stagnant water that has turned brackish for want of draining. While their men may be able to lay their hands on non-essentials like paan and tobacco, women are handed down barely enough to satisfy their hunger; their men’s wants take precedence over even their basic needs of drinking water, food and compassionate treatment.

Those who have been to the flood-displaced people’s camps will say that they have seen glimpses from a living hell. The outreach of the aid agencies has remained sporadic at best; donors and volunteers have not been able to penetrate large swathes of the affected population, especially those marooned in far-flung areas that lie way off the main roads.

Even when help reaches such communities, it is only in the shape of the leftovers by what has been spared after distribution among those displaced who are relatively easier to reach. Not everyone can afford to arrange for transport or has the strength to wade through stagnant water to reach safer ground near the main roads, and so the suffering continues, untold and largely invisible.

Of the odd 800 basic health units and dispensaries in the affected areas, over 200 have reportedly been washed away. As for the remainder, it is a challenge to get any medical supplies out to them, let alone manage to keep them manned at a time when the provision of potable water and daily meals are the first priority of the donors and aid workers. Besides these excruciating basic needs, the vulnerable women and children, even those few who are not suffering from physical ailments, are carrying a lot of emotional hurt and distress.

Whilst provisions for basic human survival are somehow being ensured to keep the displaced alive, there is a dire need for women volunteers from the cities to reach out to the displaced women in distress. The need for counselling services, even in an informal manner, cannot be overstated. Government and NGO aid and relief agencies as well as women rights groups should recruit women volunteers from the big cities and take them to marooned communities where the volunteers can help relieve the psychological stress of the displaced women — simply by listening to them.

At a time of distress listening to their problems or inner feelings can have a therapeutic effect. The women in distress need to talk, share their grief, tell of their agony and worries — and they are waiting for those who can help by lending a sympathetic ear. Public and private-sector hospitals and medical colleges with psychiatric departments should arrange regular weekend trips to the displaced communities. Serving doctors, counsellors and even students can do a great deal of service to humanity by simply being there and listening to the women in distress and hearing out tales of loss and sorrow.

Many of the flood victims lived in abject poverty even before they were displaced from their homes; they have practically nothing to go back to after the water recedes. The least the volunteers can do is to give them some hope by being there and showing they have not been forgotten or abandoned regardless of the cruel reality that surrounds them.

It is critical that the volunteer counselling teams that go out to the affected communities comprise women volunteers who have unhindered access to the women victims of the disaster that need them most. The presence of women volunteers, even if for a day in a given community, can also have a sensitising effect on the women flood victims’ male family members when they see that their women are not alone and left at the mercy of circumstances.

There are many international experiences and models from African countries suffering from drought or conflict that have shown that community work and services, especially when undertaken by empowered women amongst the less empowered groups, have a measurable positive impact in mitigating the trauma caused by the tragedy at hand. The effort is very doable and it must be undertaken by concerned groups without further delay.

The write is a member of staff.

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