Single-headed quake households face uncertain future

Thousands of women who lost their husbands in the October quake that claimed the lives of more than 80,000 in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistani-administered Kashmir must now struggle alone as the only breadwinners in their families.

"We are trying to survive on our own. After the quake, we had no house, no shelter, but thanks to the IOM [International Organization for Migration], we have shelter," said Atrjan, a mother of six who lost her husband in the quake. With assistance from IOM, a new house is being built for the family, from the mountain village of Chattian, 50 km northeast of Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

"We are in a very difficult situation. I cannot carry food from that mountain which is several hours' walk from here," said Atrjan.

Many survivors in the area can be seen carrying relief items, including food, from the nearest relief distribution point on their backs for more than an hour as there is no road or transport in the village, which is over 1,500 m above sea level. "All our relatives live very far from here and they cannot come here to help us," she said.

"My elder son, who is 16, will look for a job in Muzaffarabad or big cities and come back with money for us," the mother of four daughters and two sons said, adding that there were no other alternatives available to them.

But Atrjan is not alone in her worries. Guljan, a young widow in her 20s, is holding her baby, which was born just months before the quake struck the area. Originally from one of the many outlying villages in the area, she is currently living in the Chatter Class camp for quake survivors near Muzaffarabad, as she couldn't survive in her village with nothing to live on after her husband was killed by the tremor.

"Here in the camp we have shelter, food and medical assistance. But I don't know what I am going to do to survive after the camp closes. I am interested in attending some sewing courses because I was doing a little bit of that in my home village. If I learn this trade I would be able to work and provide for my baby," Guljan said.

Although there are no exact statistics on the number of single-headed households created by the earthquake, relief workers from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the lead agency for camp management in quake-affected areas, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) told IRIN that their number could be in the thousands.

According to UNICEF, there were more than 200 widows in camps in and around Muzaffarabad alone. But "their actual number is higher because this is the figure that we have been able to identify so far," Stener Vogt, a protection officer with the UN children's agency, said earlier in December.

Whatever their exact number, losing a husband in traditional Pakistani society, particularly in rural areas where women mainly remain within their home engaged in housekeeping and raising their children while men go out to work - proves a major challenge. Moreover, if there are no extended family networks to support them, widows are particularly vulnerable.

"If a woman has lost her husband, but her father-in-law or brother-in-law are taking care of her and her children, we consider such families less vulnerable as they can rely on their extended family support network. So, we focus primarily on those families that are really in need and there is nobody to help them," Vogt explained.