Oh great government of Pakistan, take notice of the female aid workers in Balochistan, don’t alienate them!

Published: April 25, 2014
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Some trust is won when men see their children healthier than before as a result of consultation from female heath workers. PHOTO: REUTERS

On my recent trip to Balochistan, I came across examples of how women folk fare in tribal set-ups. While we, in the urban centres, believe that women are usually ignored and not allowed to contribute to society in tribal arrangements, the Baloch tradition has a very unique way of putting their women to good use.

Tribal feuds and enmities usually span over generations. So when all else fails, the hidden asset – the women – is consumed. The women of the tribe seeking to reconcile are sent to the other tribe. These women then beg for forgiveness for the men folk of their tribe to prevent further bloodshed.

This practice is called Gudh and is very Baloch in essence. It also goes to show that women are held in honour by Baloch tribes and so their requests can never be declined.

You might shake your head in disapproval over this tradition but whichever way you look at it, there is no denying that women folk possess a strategic value for the well-being of Baloch families, tribes and, eventually, for the society.

Present times have greatly contributed to the hardships of the tribes. Tough climatic conditions, poverty and governments’ ignorance has made life nothing but a hardship. Insurgency in the province has given rise to an excruciating situation where women and children suffer the most.

Similarly, figures that aid agencies present aren’t encouraging at all. United Nation’s (UN) World Food Program (WFP) describes 16.2% children as malnourished in Pakistan – this is beyond the 10% emergency mark. The situation is very serious for Balochistan, as it has the highest rate of undernourishment and being the largest province in Pakistan its children are suffering the most because they never have enough to eat.

Corruption in government departments remains rampant and whatever money is left goes into heavy administrative costs, comprising largely of salaries. There is not much that we see being done for the people they govern.

Where tribesmen use Gudh to ‘utilise’ women, aid agencies realise the importance of mobilising women of the far flung areas, if any improvement in social conditions is to be brought about. That’s why there is a strong gender component in UN projects under WFP. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) ensures 40% female participation in its work to improve livelihoods.

To work with womenfolk in the communities, female aid workers are hard to find. The very few that are willing, risk everything they have when they go and interact with communities in the field. This includes their reputation.

Zari’s* eyes were shining with hope and determination when I spoke with her. She recalled the beginning of her career years ago when she had just completed 10th standard at a girls’ school in Quetta. She felt that female aid workers are looked down upon, even today, as wayward and of not a good character, especially when the message these workers convey hover around encouraging women to contribute to household incomes and eventually develop a voice of their own.

This makes the males insecure.

But as they say, economics change social attitudes; some headway has been made. With bravery and determination, female aid workers like Zari have been able to win the trust of the traditionalist villagers. Men folk, who earlier would not let these women enter their villages, have begun to trust them when they see that their children now have more to eat as a result of extra income that their wives or sisters bring in.

That’s not all; the husband also consults his wife when he plans a marriage of their daughter, hence proving that women are more respected than what is presumed.

For Zari, this is not just a source of professional satisfaction. These changing attitudes bring her personal happiness. The smile on the beautiful faces of the people and communities she works with is priceless.

However, some challenges still remain when working with Baloch and Pashtun tribes. A general lack of awareness in the rural population is a big factor. Female aid workers, working on health issues, are of the view that change begins slowly and gradually and, hence requires time but being women it’s easier for them to interact with tribal families and try to solve their problems.

Some trust is won when men see their children healthier than before as a result of consultation from female heath workers. This, however, does not mean that there aren’t any boundaries. Female aid workers still cannot work on family planning and reproductive health issues as a project activity. It was interesting that there seemed to be a fair realisation that these taboo topics are really crucial because if the size of the family cannot be controlled, prosperity becomes hard to ensure.

The government needs to learn from these aid agencies. Take notice of the picture the aid workers paint of the people that need attention so that they do not feel alienated from the rest of the country. The job of the government is not just to provide jobs; the well-being of the people is its primary responsibility and while they undertake this responsibility, they shouldn’t forget the role Baloch women can play in society’s progress.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

waqas.rafique

Waqas Rafique

An Islamabad based journalist who was a former employee of Express News. He tweets @waqasrafique (twitter.com/waqasrafique)

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