Credit: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

Pakistan: Supporting women after the floods

“We have been through a big trauma here and we are finding this work is helping us.”

In most emergencies women are significantly more affected than men, and in far greater numbers. In our work we recognize not only that men and women have different roles in most societies, but that women are often marginalized.

Oxfam believes that in an emergency response the delivery of aid, emergency interventions and lifesaving strategies have greater impact when there is an understanding of these different roles, needs, interests, vulnerabilities, capabilities and ways of coping.

A balance of men and women


Azra, Program Officer with Lasoona. Credit: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

Field staff will include a balance of men and women. The sex of an interviewer will have a major impact on the quality of the response. In some areas this has meant a woman has been appointed to a particular job for the first time, as Azra, Program Officer with Oxfam's partner Lasoona, testifies: "This is the first time a woman has been appointed to this post. Women are at the front of all the activities. This is a significant change for women and the organization." Interviews and discussions are carried out in separate groups for men and women, with female staff talking with women, so that women's needs and perspectives can more accurately be included in Oxfam's response, which is regularly monitored and evaluated.

During hygiene kit distributions a large banner is displayed showing what items and quantities are included so everyone can see what they will receive and compare what they receive with the pictures and information. In Swat province, for cultural reasons, women are unable to attend the general distributions so the same information is printed on leaflets. Because of low literacy rates, especially among women, this information is presented in different ways such as color photographs of actual items in the quantities they will receive.

In any emergency women's hygiene needs must be considered and this is discussed sensitively with the women themselves. When the women ran from the flood they didn't have time to save anything other than their children – many didn't even have time to put on shoes. As part of the hygiene kit, sanitation cloth which can be cut into to strips, is provided. Women traditionally use cloth like this. "We used to use old cloth for sanitary protection, but you have supplied us with new cloth especially for this purpose. We are very happy you did this," says Zakia.

"If we didn't get it from you there would be no other way to get it"

Poster explaining good hygiene practices

Credit: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

The hygiene kits also contain soap for washing clothes, and hygiene awareness is discussed in women-only groups. "We have been washing the sanitary cloth with the washing soap," says Bakhtraga. "It wasn't available before; if we didn't get it from you there would be no other way to get it. We've been using old cloths ... but they were not clean."

"Before we didn't care for the cloths we used. We didn't understand the importance of thoroughly cleaning them, especially with soap, but now we do and we are very happy because the irritations we suffered from before have now gone. And we are passing this information on to all the women," says Talemanan.

Considering privacy

Latrine and wash areas under construction in a camp

Latrine and wash areas under construction in a camp in Sindh. Credit: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

Normally women would have somewhere private to wash themselves and the sanitary cloth, but when they have lost their homes and are living in camps this privacy can be lost. When designing latrines and washing areas women are provided extra areas to meet this need. "Before, when we didn't have any privacy, we would form a crowd around each woman while she washed. Before the flood some people had latrines but many people used to go to the fields," Bakhtraga told us. "We had specific areas where people could go," adds Hameda, "but some men and communities further up the mountain could see us. We used to have to go at certain times when the men were not working in the fields."

Women also told us they were scared to go out at night, which was one of the times when men were not around.

"With these latrines you have made," says Bakhtraga, "the privacy issue for us women has been solved and we are very, very happy." Solani adds, "Now these latrines are just for use by our own family members so we are very happy and we can go with privacy and safety whenever we want."

Volunteers working within their own communities normally carry out essential parts of Oxfam's public health work. Because of cultural constraints, women in Swat cannot gather together in open places to discuss public health issues. Working in ways that are culturally acceptable, the female volunteers are trained, by women, in a designated tent, which has easy and discreet access.

Solani, the team leader for a group of female community health volunteers, explains that after training, "each volunteer will work with a group of women from three or four families – all of them living close to each other. We go to their places or they come to us."

"Now we are community health volunteers"

Female community health workers

Some of the female community health workers, including, from second left, Nargis, Rashida, and Balanishata. Credit: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

"Women are not well educated here, and we are kept to the boundaries of our homes," says Talemanan. "Before we could only share our problems and concerns within our family but now we are community health volunteers and we can come here and tell you our problems. We have learnt a lot about health issues and we are now going to women's homes, or they are coming to us. They are mainly family members, and we are telling them about what we have learnt."

With the loss of homes, assets and livelihoods, one of Oxfam's first interventions was to inject cash into households. While men could be involved in cash for work programs such as road building and cleaning irrigation channels and drains, women in Swat could not. Discussions with women soon highlighted a number of concerns, which included finding work they could do within the home, and not gathering in large numbers, which they felt could raise security risks.

The answer has been to employ the women to use their traditional skills making shawls, jumpers and quilts. Many people lost these items in the flood and with winter fast approaching there is a great need for them locally. The women are provided with the materials and 5,600 rupees (about $68), the same amount as the men. "We can't go out for work and we're not educated so we are pleased that an NGO is bringing these activities so we can work at home." When the items are finished Lasoona will collect them and distribute them to others in need.

Psychological benefits

This work has also had psychological benefits. "We have been through a big trauma here and we are finding this work is helping us," says Mahran. "We have to concentrate on the work, there is a lot of detail, it takes our minds off what has happened."

Other women have received cash through checks or cash vouchers. This is the first time many of the women have had paid work. "I no longer feel I'm just a tool for cooking, or a tool for cleaning," says Shaheen.

And it's the first time many of them have had their own money. "It's our first time to be earning money; we are very happy and we are very satisfied," says Zahirat. "We don't have to ask our fathers or our husbands for money for underwear, children's clothes or other items ... It makes us feel like we are standing on our own feet, that we are not so dependent."

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Oxfam's humanitarian response to the Pakistan floods