From Utter Despair to Hope: My Work with Internally Displaced Women and Children
Sitting in a lawn of a guest house in Abbottabad I looked at the big United Nations (UN) Vehicles passing on the road in front of the guesthouse we were living in. “Where are these huge UN vehicles going?” I asked myself. They were on their way to Mansehra for relief and recovery work as Mansehra had become a city of Non-Governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN Agencies after the most devastating earthquake of the century. At that time I was working as an Assistant Professor at a University thousands of miles away from the earthquake affected areas, but was compelled to do my duty and join in relief efforts.
In February of 2006 I decided to join post-earthquake recovery and rehabilitation work in the affected areas through one of the local NGOs, which had vast experience of working with the Afghan refugees, and was now working as a partner of the UN and in implementing various education, health, child protection, camp management and food distribution programs.
As a development practitioner, almost every day my work would take me to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), many of whom were women living in tent villages and in the community. These women were facing every possible hardship, including disability, lack of access to basic health care, and the loss of family members and loved ones.
The most traumatic experience was of those women who had lost number of their children – there were some had lost all and some had lost their only child. Many were feeling guilty for being alive and asked why they survived when their sons and daughters did not. Many were torturing themselves for not being able to rescue those children who died under the huge debris of their destroyed houses.
I came across many women who had been forced to leave their houses and live with their parents as their husbands had died and the in-laws did not want to take on their financial burden. These women had no property to their names, and of the few who did, most legal documents were lost during the earthquake.
The women living in the tent villages were taking part in different participatory activities including consultation workshops awareness raising campaigns regarding child protection and child rights to ensure child rights protection in the tent villages in the earthquake-affected areas. Adolescent girls were provided with training in basic life skills at community level.
Tania with children of 2005 earthquake-affected area of Kaghan valley in North-Western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
After the earthquake these women were forced to learn a new way of life, as they were deprived of social safety nets that were available to them prior to the earthquake. The trauma was evident, as they had lost their homes, their livelihoods, and many of them their families. Their new way of life was to make due with the bare necessities of survival.
The affected women worked to rebuild their lives, brick by brick. Their resilience in the face of hardship was undeniable.
I also had the opportunity to work in the area of rural housing reconstruction. For the first time in their lives and for the first time in Pakistan, women were officially involved in the post-earthquake housing (re)construction program.
Building a new house is a very emotional and bittersweet experience for the women living in this part of the world. This is not only because they were included in the process, but also because as they built, they were reminded of the debris under which their loved ones had lost their lives.
Despite so much loss and pain, hope was still in the air. New homes were being built, new children were being born, new leaves and flowers were appearing on trees. As I witnessed this new growth and healing process, I realized everything was not lost after all.
“We are trying our best, we will stand up again, our lives will get to normal we will rebuild our homes and our lives.” These were the messages that could easily be read in their eyes. Tears gave way to cautious laughter, and utter despair made way for hope. It was now clear that they could see the light by the end of the dark tunnel, and so could I.