Pak Affairs

Women, children at increased risk in flood-affected areas

KARACHI: Rukhsana demonstrates with her infant child as he refuses to settle on an embankment where she wants him to relieve himself. After a brief bout of shrieking from the child, he finally relents and his mother wipes him clean with a hefty palm-full of soil – ignoring the flood-water about 10 feet below which laps higher with every new gust of wind. “I don’t dare take him near that water,” Rukhsana says, wiping her hands clean on her own, tattered dress. “Have you seen what’s happened to the other children here? They all have some skin disease or other. I don’t want that to happen to my child, but this water is all we have and I know he’s going to get it, too, because we have to drink this same water to survive.”

Behind Rukhsana and her child, a row of makeshift shelters stretches into the distance in the sub-district of Johi in Sindh Province’s Dadu District, about 350km from Karachi. Locals have used everything available to shield themselves from the sun: `charpoys’ (local beds), bed-sheets, `dupattas’ (head-scarves) and `chaddars’ (that cover a woman’s entire body). Tents are in short supply.Since heavy tropical rains and a cyclone struck southern and southwestern Pakistan in late June, killing 400, displacing nearly 400,000 and adversely affecting 2.5 million people, the intervening two months have steadily seen the situation, especially for women and children, go from bad to the verge of becoming “much worse”, relief and aid agency officials say.

“Problems are growing in these flooded areas, particularly for women and children,” Jabeen Abbas, a child protection officer with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN. “They have more emerging needs now which are not being met: they are more vulnerable, they need medical help, they live in shelters or camps set up in local schools, they don’t have clean drinking water – and the flood-waters in Dadu, for example, are just not receding.”

About a 100km away, in a badly-hit part of the sub-district of K.N. Shah, children play happily at the edge of what seems like a beach: flood-waters stretch out to the horizon with only tree-tops visible, and the children splash around energetically, blissfully unaware of the many hazards present in the water. Snake-bites are becoming an increasing menace, according to locals, with water-borne diseases proliferating by the day, according to aid agency and relief officials.

Abida, a 60-something woman in K.N. Shah who identifies herself with just the single name, props herself up on her `charpoy’ which lies in the open and shouts instructions to someone in Sindhi. A local helps with the translation into Urdu. “My grandchildren have all had diarrhoea since the floods happened and we were displaced. My youngest grand-daughter needs immediate medical care, but no doctor has bothered to come and see us.” Sanitation and hygiene, along with protection for women from harassment and proper medical care for children, are key issues facing the local populace, aid officials say.

In a high school in Qamber, about an hour and a half’s drive from K.N. Shah, over 300 people are camped on a patch of ground that reeks: surviving livestock are tethered right next to where a family sleeps in the open and children are forced to play in the same areas where they relieve themselves. Tepid pools of water, with thousands of flies and mosquitoes, add to a health scenario, which is sadly repeated across the water-devastated landscape in Sindh and Balochistan.

Sylvia Risi, the liaison officer for Première Urgence, a French non-governmental organisation (NGO) which is setting up much-needed water-purification plants in flood areas across Sindh, told IRIN that hygiene promotion and sanitation figure prominently on her organisation’s agenda.”Hygiene obviously has been badly hit with the lack of sanitation so, apart from setting up these water-purification plants, we are also trying to raise awareness for women and children on hygiene promotion and sanitation,” she said, turning around to gesture to the newly established water purification plant behind her.

“As we have kept on stressing, women and children were the most at-risk groups in these areas,” UNICEF’s Abbas said. “Women, particularly, have faced protection issues: they have been harassed by police when they go and collect relief goods. so the problems continue to grow. And the situation is worsening by the day.”In a primary school in Qamber, Noor Din, a frail old man with shaking hands, told IRIN that over 250 people were housed in a school that has only 10 rooms. “There are over 100 people here from my village alone. Our women are falling sick and our children are dying before our eyes,” he wept.

Education is a worry, but with almost every school in every flood-affected district functioning as a camp for flood-refugees, local children are likely to have no access to education, locals say. “The summer break is over and schools should be open now,” Abbas said. “But local administrations face a conundrum: do they force refugees out to ensure local children get an education? How will they manage? As I said, the problems are already increasing – and they will keep on increasing!”-SANA

About the author

Rubab Saleem

Rubab Saleem is Editor of Pakistan Times

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