Humanising the statistics on the rural poor in Pakistan has always been a challenge. In a country which has become numb and immune to such human pain, how does one begin the process of healing? Empathising through the numbers is tough. So, let’s first look at the numbers – and then Gulnaz’s lived experience.
The recent Government of Pakistan Damage and Needs Assessment (DNA) Report for the 2022 Rains & Floods was released by the planning commission. This report is a standard operating planning framework for the rehabilitation process. I will selectively share what has happened to the women and children in the flood-affected areas.
According to the report, 94,478 female teachers have been displaced. 1 million female students have lost the opportunity to continue studying in destroyed schools (page 51 of the PDNA). Rural infrastructure was always weak and meagre to begin with, and after the rains the DNA states 13% of the health facilities have been damaged. Moreover, the rains have “interrupted health service delivery from the community level (primary healthcare including Rural Health Centers and Basic Health Units) through the secondary level (District Headquarters, Tehsil Headquarters, and Civil Hospitals)” (page 52). The impact of this disruption has compounded local “malnutrition, which was already dangerously high, has substantively increased.”
In a country which has one of the highest birthrates in the world, “Around 650,000 pregnant women are facing challenges in getting access to maternal services, while nearly 4 million children lack access to health services” (Page 53).
Throughout my relief work in Balochistan I witnessed countless number of men, women and children who complained of illness and were evidently unwell. The DNA states, “Pakistan is experiencing substantive increases of communicable diseases such as acute diarrhea, cholera, malaria, and dengue. Disruption in health service delivery will increase health inequities for the poor and disadvantaged due to hindered access to services such as immunizations, routine medical care including medication for chronic disease, maternal and child health services, as well as risk of higher out-of-pocket health expenditures.”
Gulnaz is one of these millions without shelter. She is poor, and a woman in Balochistan.
Her home was in a tiny village called Dhirghi in district Sohbatpur, in southern Balochistan. Along with her four children, she was rescued by the armed forces from drowning in July. The incessant rains destroyed her home, hearth and life one day in July. She remained displaced for two months without any social security. Gulnaz and her family spent nights on the road, temporary tent cities with sporadic rations from civil society individuals, working on relief in the general area of Sohbaptur. Seeking help wherever she could, after two months she returned to Dhirghi. Pregnant women from her village lost their babies, while some gave birth in conditions unmentionable.
Gulnaz may be grateful for new clothes and some sanitary relief, and some of the pregnant women for packages of medicines for their newborns etc. But the truth is: with no indoor plumbing, nor clean drinking water anywhere in sight, or privacy, how can anything we give them make any sense or difference?
When we met Gulnaz in her village, we could see the water had receded in parts, but everything she held dear around her had been destroyed. Nevertheless, this place remains the only semblance of home and security for Gulnaz. Her one-room mud hut with a bushweed anteroom was her home for her family of six. Washed away forever, now they live between open skies, and under some tree cover, until they figure out how to rebuild a home. As to when the government or anyone will step in to help them rebuild their home is unknown. When will the housing rebuilding cash grant reach them? No communication has been felt necessary. Will they be built more resiliently? That too is an unknown.
I asked Gulnaz as to how old she is. Gulnaz did not quite know but estimated around 34 years. Such markers have little meaning here. Why should it? Life has been very hard. The men including her husband Rehman laboured on agricultural lands. When they are not ploughing and planting for the local landlord, the men look for daily wage work. The women did not generate income in the traditional sense for the family. None of them were educated. Life hasn’t provided the time to allocate towards education. The choices for men and women are limited. Education facilities are uninviting and child marriages common. Pregnancies amongst young girls are apparent. The statistics refer to “pregnant women” but on ground the number of girl pregnancies are too high. I noticed this across my health camps that we organized in Jaffrabad, Naseerabad and UstaMohammad. I could see some of the pregnant in Dhirghi were mere girls.
As we talked and tried to gauge one another. I can only say Gulnaz and her village are resilient and alive, but the unending trauma remains. There is no sense of any hope of rebuilding, this has not been the first time they’ve experienced flooding. According to the DNA, 1.27 million homes were destroyed out of which 17% (215,900 homes) were in Balochistan. Gulnaz’s kacha home was one of those. How does one assess ‘damaged or a destroyed’ home. Is the sum of the tangible assets a home? Collating human displacement and suffering in statistics has numbed us to the reality of Pakistani poor’s repeated suffering.
As we listened the group of women, my eyes popped and my facial expressions brought something I can’t quite explain. I would not call it ‘amused’ but I am unable to describe what she must think of someone like me adequately. Her life of perpetual fear of inundation is not something that I can quite grasp. Imagine where no one explains or addresses this state of being, and you are trapped – you cannot escape this life. I thought, I am getting goosebumps thinking about it, while Gulnaz lives it.
We could only offer Gulnaz and 37 other women in Dhirgi some new traditional Balochi clothes and a few other items.
We sat down and spoke about hygiene and health practices. Marzia and I were distributing reusable sanitary kits along with maternity support packages for mothers and young babies. As we spoke about water management, sanitation, and health-related practices, I realised what bollocks was I engaging in. Gulnaz may be grateful for new clothes and some sanitary relief, and some of the pregnant women for packages of medicines for their newborns etc. But the truth is: with no indoor plumbing, nor clean drinking water anywhere in sight, or privacy, how can anything we give them make any sense or difference? In any case, Gulnaz listened and was very grateful for what we brought.
According to the DNA, “1.5 million households are unable to access water for three months, and there is an additional health burden due to poor sanitation, as the result of the floods. Complete indirect health impacts due to lack of access to water and sanitation cannot be fully assessed; however, increasing incidents of malaria, diarrhea, typhoid, and gastrointestinal diseases have been reported from the affected areas. The human impact is disproportionately borne by vulnerable groups, including women, the elderly, pregnant and lactating mothers, and children” (page 59).
The statistics hide the reality that prior to the floods/rains there was negligible sanitation, or clean drinking water systems in place here. Will government rebuild to ensure Gulnaz’s community is safer?
I left thinking: why hasn’t anyone in the distressed districts told me off?
I should have heard “What are you talking about?” or “You want us to adopt clean hygienic practices, so we do not fall sick and require serious social services? Sure, then provide us with clean drinking water first, so I can bathe, eat, and wash.”
I do wonder if government officials and aid workers have encountered any such feedback.
Then I think about how desperate Gulnaz must be, that with these thoughts in her heart, she is still grateful for what we have brought.
I looked at Maria, Zara, Gul and Gulnaz, all around us, women with similar lives and stories. Sitting together as they shared their pain. Our conversations are not in sync. Our worlds are not in equilibrium. Something is very wrong here.
I saw some younger girls at the back giggle, and I felt a tad self-conscious about my broken Urdu. Were they laughing at that? Maybe. Hopefully. Was Marzia, translating in Balochi, providing the nuance of what I was discussing? Or did our lecturing on sanitation, hygiene, clean food – however well intended – sound like alien-speak, given the realities on the ground?
What can I do more? How do I meet her halfway?
Listen to her. Tick marked.
Share her pleas. Tick marked.
Rebuild her family’s lives with some sense of permanent security. Pending.
We’ve written the report, the statistics are in place, the begging bowl extended once again. Will we restore Gulnaz’s life back to her pre-flood level of vulnerability, or a better, offer her a stronger, safer social environment?
Until then, I will continue to visit as many Gulnazes.