Over 30 women sitting in a tent are holding up their right arms high in the air, waiting for their turn to talk. Many are clutching scraps of paper with meticulous lists written on them. One by one they stand up and address the meeting in nervous, shaky voices. But as the women around them nod in agreement and call out their support, their confidence grows and so do their voices.
This is Muzaffarabad’s Female Committee and for most of the women here, this is the first time they have aired their problems in a public forum.
“Women are being empowered and they are enjoying it,” explained Catherine Harding, a community services officer with the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who initiated the scheme and chairs the committee meetings.
“This is something new and innovative for them. There’s been a real change in the women, they are showing great initiative,” she said.
The Female Committee, which was established by UNHCR, represents some 60 camps in Muzaffarabad district and meets every week in the UN compound in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
To establish the body, UNHCR first approached local camp management groups to ask permission for the participation of female residents. The response was positive in most camps, although a few camps were reluctant to endorse it at the time. Representatives were then democratically elected.
They are encouraged to work in collaboration with the Camp Management Committees set up by the government.
“We wanted to approach women as a target group, to make them a part of the decision-making process and include them in the management of the camps, addressing social issues such as family violence and human rights issues at their level,” Harding explained. “Women are now taking the lead in the camps to identify existing problems.”
Up to 80 women representing their camps attend meetings and report on the problems they face in the tented camps. Today, the women say that lack of adequate food is a major concern for female survivors of the 8 October earthquake that killed over 80,000 people.
“We need food,” remarked 25-year-old Safia Ghazvi. “We are given flour, pulses and oil but it’s not enough. It’s all we’ve had for four months, and we can’t eat naan [local bread] everyday,” she complained.
All the women are in agreement on this issue. For the past week their fellow female residents have been visiting them to list their complaints, which the representatives then present to UNHCR at the Female Committee.
When the case is presented Harding opens the discussion to find solutions, first asking the women what food they are in need of. The women say that they need rice, sugar, tea and milk, which they cannot afford to buy.
“After we have paid for things like school expenses for the children, we have nothing left,” said Arezu, whose husband receives a monthly pension for serving in the army.
And after a show of hands, over three-quarters of the women in the meeting say they are from households which have no income. They either lost their husbands, lost their farming land or their businesses in the quake.
“Before the earthquake our husbands were earning, but now they’ve lost everything and we have to borrow money to buy food,” said Roxanna, highlighting the growing debt that many survivors are facing.
Mark Agoya, a programme officer with the World Food Programme (WFP), said that rice was supposed to be included in the original food ration.
“But unfortunately we didn’t get a donor to give us rice,” he conceded.
Agoya said wheat distributed by WFP is donated by the Pakistani government and added that Pakistan was not a food-deficit country.
“The food ration given to the needy beneficiaries by WFP meets the minimum nutritional requirement for a person a day, but we are considering adding rice to the food ration for the recovering phase, which starts from 1 April.”
The other main issue on the agenda is the government drive to encourage survivors to return to their villages. The government has said that all survivors living in camps in Muzaffarabad who are not from the city must return to their villages by 31 March.
“I don’t have any land left to go back to,” one of the women at the meeting explained to nods of agreement.
“This date is too soon and it is not possible for people to go back by then because they have no land to return to. The earthquake destroyed the hills,” noted Sumeera Mehboob Qureshi, the elected chairwoman for the Committee.
Sumeera said another major problem facing women was cooking facilities in the tents. “We cook in the tents and it’s very dangerous,” she said. “The women just want somewhere to be able to cook.” Water and sanitation was also a concern.
Sumeera lives in the Hockey Stadium Narrol 2 camp in Muzaffarabad. There are 250 families in 225 tents in the camp, which has a population of 1,507. She starts her day at 6 o’clock and women come to her tent until 10 o’clock at night. The women also share personal problems, such as domestic violence and health issues.
“This committee is so important because women have nobody to talk to,” said Sumeera, adding that the committee had given many women newfound confidence.
“Little by little these women are waking to a new reality,” she said. “As one woman said to me: ‘God caused the earthquake and it has brought a lot of destruction, but it has shaken the roots of society and has brought change into women’s lives and has given us a voice'".