In helping 1.2 million Pakistanis, Oxfam pays keen attention to women's needs

By Jane Beesley
woman in yellow shawl
Mahran, 18, has been embroIdering shawls as part of Oxfam's cash for work program in Pakistan's Swat province.

As winter approaches, countless people in Pakistan are still reeling from the effects of severe flooding earlier this year that washed away homes, crops, and jobs. Seven million people do not have adequate shelter; 10 million need immediate food assistance; and large sections of Sindh, a province in the south, remain underwater.

From experience, Oxfam knows that disasters like these often hit women hardest. In the emergency response that is now assisting more than 1.2 million people, the organization is paying particular attention to the needs of Pakistani women as they strive to help their families and maintain their dignity.

An income, and peace of mind

Woman-to-woman interviews between field staffers and members of the community have helped Oxfam shape its emergency programs to reflect the perspective and requirements of women. With so much material loss across the provinces, one of Oxfam’s first interventions in Swat was to inject cash into households by paying people to help rebuild roads and clean irrigation channels. For men, that kind of work is fine. But what could the women do? Culturally, they needed to find work they could do within their homes -- and that wouldn’t require them to gather in large numbers, which they said could raise security risks.

After discussions, the answer became clear: employ women to use their traditional skills to make shawls, jumpers, and quilts.  Many people lost these items in the flood and there is a great need locally. An Oxfam local partner organization known as Lasoona will collect the goods and distribute them to others in need. In exchange for their work, the women who sew are earning 5,600 rupees—the same amount as the men do for their labors.

For many, this is the first time they have had paid work and the first time they’ve had their own money—both a delight.

‘I no longer feel I’m just a tool for cooking, or a tool for cleaning,’ said one woman named Shaheen.

‘It’s our first time to be earning money. We are very happy and we are very satisfied.  We want it again and again and again,” said another woman named Zahirat. “It makes us feel like we are standing on our own feet, that we are not so dependent, because we don’t have to ask our fathers or our husbands for money for underwear, children’s clothes, or other items.”

And as important as money, perhaps, is the peace of mind the work has brought, especially during such challenging times.

“We have been through a big trauma here and we are finding this work is helping us,” said a woman named Mahran.  “We have to concentrate on the work. There is a lot of detail. It takes our minds off what has happened.”

Dignity despite disaster

Adding to that peace of mind is dignity—something that disasters can snatch away in a second. In Pakistan, Oxfam has been working hard to ensure that women have the means to keep it.

In Swat, cultural norms prevent women from attending general distributions of emergency goods. At one distribution, a large banner depicted the contents of hygiene kits that families would receive. To enable women to learn what would be in the kits, Oxfam distributed leaflets among them with the same information that was on the banner—including photos for those who were unable to read.

Among the goods in the kits are cloths for menstruation—a necessity for women, but not something they would have had time to grab from their homes in the scramble to save themselves and their children from the rising flood waters.

“Before 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 because it has solved some of our problems,” said a woman named Zakia.

And even better, the kits contain soap for washing the cloths and other laundry. Soap hasn’t always been readily available, and with it Oxfam has been holding discussions on hygiene awareness in women-only groups.

‘Before, we didn’t care for the cloths we used,” said a woman named Talemanan. “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.”  

Normally women would have somewhere private to wash the sanitary cloth and themselves. Oxfam has been working to ensure that privacy is available in the camps for displaced people, as well, by designing latrines and washing areas that meet the women’s particular needs.

”With these latrines you have made, the privacy issue for us women has been solved,” said a woman name Bakhtraga, “and we are very, very happy.”

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