In-depth: When disaster strikes: the response to the South Asian earthquake
PAKISTAN: Women’s access to land essential to reconstruction efforts
Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, An elderly woman sits among the rubble, she received donated blankets and a jacket but as a single woman with few surviving relatives her future may be very difficult without targeted assistance
NAIROBI, 5 June 2006 (IRIN) - On 10 November 2005, a month after the devastating earthquake in northern Pakistan, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education sent a letter to the al-Khubaib Foundation, a faith-based nongovernmental organisation, authorising them to establish an ‘aashiana’ (meaning ‘nest’) for orphans, widows and destitute women with children under age 16.
“The representatives of Bait ul Mal [a government social-welfare institution] and the al-Khubaib Foundation are authorized to collect/retrieve the above-mentioned beneficiaries/affectees from the concerned quarters (hospitals), relief camps and affected areas,” the letter said.
According to Col Youssef Jan, who manages an al-Khubaib Foundation camp for people displaced by the earthquake in Muzaffarabad in Pakistani-Administered Kashmir (PAK), the foundation plans to run a total of five of these centres, with between 200 and 300 widows in each. In Hatian, a converted former army barracks an hour’s drive from the capital, Islamabad, about 300 widows were being given food, clothing, shelter and vocational training by al-Khubaib, Jan said. The centre has capacity for 200 more. Four field offices with three field officers each go into rural areas and village communities “to motivate” widows to come. “There is nobody to look after them after the husbands have died,” he explained.
Field workers had consulted with community representatives in each area, said a former army general who runs a separate al-Khubaib camp for women and young boys just outside the city of Mansehra in North Western Frontier Province. “Girls are not easy to manage in our society. We only take the girls with their mothers,” he said. “If they [field workers] think they are real, deserving cases, they are brought here. … If they [women] had a male member alive, they would go back [to their homes].”
Widows didn’t feel secure in the villages, he added: “We give them protection here.”
In addition to security, al-Khubaib offers up to three hours of religious instruction a day, or study of the Quran, in its Mansehra camp: From before first light to 7:30 a.m. and again from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
There are about 30,000 widows in earthquake-affected areas in PAK and North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), according to agencies working in the region. One draft study found that 86 percent of the estimated 6,000 widows in camps had no formal education. International relief organisation Oxfam has reported that female literacy in rural areas of NWFP stands at 16 percent.
Aside from groups officially mandated to look after widowed and destitute women, other, unauthorised groups are also seeking funding for and providing humanitarian services. The al-Rasheed Trust - which was included on the United Nations Security Council’s 2002 list of sanctioned organisations because of alleged links with the al-Qaeda terrorist group - has been running camps for displaced people in PAK and neighbouring NWFP.
The trust plans to build 500 communal houses for widows, if given land by the government. “I am a local,” said Mohammed Arshad, manager of a tented camp for women and children in the city of Mansehra in NWFP. “With my personal relations, we can confirm that these are widows and allow them to settle in the camp. After a year, we will make a plan; we will provide them with houses.”
Protection versus deprivation of rights
In the strikingly well-equipped and spotless al-Khubaib Muzaffarabad camp – which will soon be converted into a dedicated women’s and children’s camp - the foundation has a well-equipped hospital, a communal kitchen, eight washing machines, television, security lights, a play area for children, a drainage system, free medical care, food, clothing, schools and vocational training. The aashiana will provide permanent homes for the women “so long as the foundation is alive,” Jan said. “We were given responsibility for these people so they can live a better life and may not be given to people who can turn them into criminals,” he added. “We are here to regularise things.”
|The major issue is that possession of land is predominantly controlled by males; law enforcement is chronically weak; corruption is pervasive; [and] subordination of women is reinforced through social and economic structures of power
Nagina, aged 50 and without formal education, is a typical case. Her husband died in the earthquake leaving her no inheritance money. Her home - some 35km away - was demolished. “Why would I go there?” she asked. “There are no facilities of any kind. … The [other] women here have husbands, so they can go back. I have no husband, so I can’t.” Later on, she tearfully admitted she longs for her village and community. Women like Nagina, even if they have extended families, can face tremendous problems exercising their right to return to their villages.
Almost two-thirds of all households in Pakistan do not own the land they live on, and 60 percent of the total land is distributed among less than 10 percent of the population, according to the Oxford Policy Management consultancy firm. Proving land title is difficult at the best of times, and as a result of the earthquake, some 85 percent of municipal records and 25 percent of revenue records appear to have been lost, Oxfam said. In many cases, both land and papers have disappeared under landslides.
Even in normal circumstances, women’s access to land is considerably more restricted than men’s. Inheritance law, governed by the Land Revenue Act of 1967, determines that inheritance is automatic: Property has to be distributed to inheritors within three months of a person’s death. Women have automatic entitlement to one-eighth of their husbands’ wealth, with the rest divided among his parents and children. Daughters receive half the share of sons.
Without enforcement, tradition often dictates that property reverts back to brothers or close male relatives. “While the law is very explicit, practice is far from compliant,” said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP). “Across the country and for centuries, women have suffered violations of their rights and been deprived of their inheritance by the male members of their families.”
Compounding matters, land in PAK and NWFP is numerically recorded but not physically divided in the records of the local ‘patwari’, or revenue officer. Neither is land physically bifurcated unless a land area is particularly large and the inheritors willing and powerful enough to seek separation into different land units. Physical transfer to women, therefore, rarely occurs.
“Women, because of their restricted mobility, low levels of literacy, lack of access to records, economic social and physical dependence on male members, rarely have information on the mutation of land on which they live or the land owned by their husbands or fathers,” Wazir Ali said.
Photo: Christopher Horwood/IRIN
|Following the earthquake, a massive number of people moved to camps in low-lying areas to avoid harsh winter conditions and have access to shelter and aid. Reports have surfaced of widows’ land being taken over by male family members
Following the earthquake, a massive number of people moved to camps in low-lying areas to avoid harsh winter conditions and have access to shelter and aid. Reports have surfaced of widows’ land being taken over by male family members. “There are worrying signs that many women who vacated their homes after the earthquake, and whose husbands or male relatives died in the disaster, are now losing their properties due to a lack of documentation,” Oxfam reported in its recent analysis of the response to the earthquake.
Although the extent of the land-grabbing is still unclear, the government needs to urgently address the problem, according to the PCP. Wazir Ali said the authorities must issue strict instructions to district revenue officers that inheritances should be passed on within the three-month deadline. Legal assistance at local administrative levels, or union councils, must also be made available to women. The inclusion of teams of female paralegals or lawyers would greatly encourage women to understand and seek their entitlements, she added.
Land entitlements of all vulnerable groups, through inheritance or land grants, should be included in any reconstruction plans, according to the PCP. But so far, both the recovery plans of the NWFP and PAK governments, as well as the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) have all failed to address the issue.
In the absence of targeted policies and legal assistance, women’s ability to exercise their rights remains extremely limited. In a 2005 report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that Pakistan measured 56 out of 58 listed countries in terms of equitable treatment of women with regard to economic participation, opportunity, political empowerment, education, health and general wellbeing. Women are “severely restricted in terms of where they can go and whom they can meet,” Oxfam has reported.
Meanwhile, government policy is focusing on “protection”, but only in the sense of physical security. “The reconstruction strategy, which focuses on the rebuilding of homes, needs to incorporate a ‘legal rights’ component so that in the case of widows, their ownership of housing is established,” said Wazir Ali. Placing women in ‘camps or communal homes where they are dependent on charity is by no means a long-term sustainable solution, rights groups have said. Instead, women must be helped to resume their former lives through land-appropriation schemes, vocational training and livelihood-support schemes. This, however, requires a change of mindset, from perceiving women as vulnerable victims to respecting their rights as equal citizens.
For women like Nageena meanwhile, life in a widows’ camp may be the only option. “The major issue is that possession of land is predominantly controlled by males; law enforcement is chronically weak; corruption is pervasive; [and] subordination of women is reinforced through social and economic structures of power,” Wazir Ali said. “There is an absence of state subsidised legal assistance to vulnerable groups, and all these factors combine to deprive women of their legal ownership rights.”