Oxfam Canada is active in Pakistani communities affected by natural disasters. Oxfam programs are strengthening health, education and essential services in the affected region, with special attention being paid to the inclusion of women and girls.
By Mbonisi Zikhali, Oxfam Canada volunteer
Literacy lessons have become the backdrop for women living in Kashmir region to examine their lives and roles within their communities, as part of Oxfam Canada’s efforts to help rebuild communities devastated by the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods.
The chance for change is another example of where humanitarian work can trigger long-term development and allow agencies like Oxfam Canada the opportunity to showcase women’s strengths and abilities.
The woman wearing the beige headscarf shared with us that she realized she had been favouring her sons over her daughters and that through discussions about gender roles, she realized that both her children deserve her love, not only her son.
The 2005 quake rocked the Kashmir region on both sides of the line of control. In the regional capital of Muzaffarabad, not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, where radiating aftershocks could be felt , at least half of the city’s buildings were flattened. Across the Kashmir region, the earthquake left 79,000 Pakistanis and 1,400 Indians dead and another 3.3 million homeless.
The catastrophe tore through the calm of a ceasefire, in a region long bruised by poverty and the India-Pakistani conflict. Kashmir, a stunningly beautiful chain of snow-capped mountains and fertile valleys, has been left undeveloped because of India and Pakistan’s struggle for control over the area, a battle which has limped along since 1947. The conflict is considered one of the world’s most dangerous, largely because both countries have nuclear weapons.
Neglect has left Kashmiris without decent access to roads, schools, hospitals and other basic services. Entire towns and villages were wiped out by the earthquake, which also devastated parts of Kashmir under Pakistani control, including Bagh and Neelum districts, where Oxfam Canada works with a local partner called Strengthening Partnerships Organization.
“They were not active in Kashmir before the quake, but with the help of this program, they have become vibrant and hopefully at the end of this program they will find other donors to maintain their presence,” said Lucie Lalanne, Oxfam Canada’s program officer for Asia.
Oxfam’s intervention was meant to help restore the dignity of women, men and children affected by the earthquake and to strengthen their capacity to respond to such disasters in the future.
Through training sessions, awareness of disaster risk management has increased significantly, and there has been commendable participation of communities, local partners, government and elected representatives.
Culture, tradition, poverty and politics have all contributed to keeping women living in the area cloistered. About 60 per cent of Kashmiri women cannot read and many live as widows, having lost their husbands to the conflict. They are vulnerable to violence, limited in their opportunities to earn an income and frequently shut out of decisions about community development.
Oxfam Canada distributed goats to 500 women living with a disability, as widows or without visible means of support. Keeping livestock is common in the area and is the chief responsibility of women. The women were also given animal husbandry training.
The project is also opening doors to health facilities and better income opportunities for women survivors of violence. By renovating schools, enrolment by girls has improved and the drop-out rate has reduced, creating better opportunities for women and girls to get quality basic education.
Working with women in the region is challenging, as they are not as visible nor as vocal as men.
“You talk to them separately, but at least they still get involved in the discussion,” Lalanne said, noting that women living in Kashmir region are enterprising. They grow vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, coriander and garlic during the numbing winter, after the main crops such as corn and other major crops have outlived their season. What isn’t eaten by the family is sold at the market, providing diversity in terms of household diet and a steady source of income.
Oxfam Canada also helped establish the Adult Literacy Centre, where women learn to write their names, or other skills such as writing grocery lists or adding up sums. Most importantly, this creates interest for their daughters to learn as well, reversing the usual practice of not sending girls to school.
“Having literacy training is a pretext to discussing women’s rights,” Lalanne said. “It can also be used to discuss issues such as water and sanitation or how to protect children around the home.”
She said women enrolled in the literacy classes compare the roles and responsibilities of men and women. “You don’t say to them, ‘Why are men treated so importantly in the community, when women do all of the work?’ You just let them arrive at their own conclusions. You let them analyze their reality.”
With another year left in the program, Lalanne said she can already see changes. Women are more confident and, with time and education, they’ll become strong advocates for their rights. Already communities have become stronger and more willing to take risks. One approached the government with a plan to install electricity for 250 households. Community Services Networks (CSN) have been put in place in both districts by our partner, Strengthening Partnerships Organization (SPO). With SPO guidance, they have created a liaison between the communities and the government and made it easier to organize communities to demonstrate against failed service delivery.
“We are happy because CSNs have received training on advocacy, lobbying and communication. They are doing that on a volunteer basis, which is impressive. I was touched by their commitment,” Lalanne said.