Marking International Women’s Day in the earthquake zone

Half a dozen young women are discussing issues that concern them and their families in a camp for quake survivors in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The women – members of a camp-based committee established to empower women in the tented facilities across the area - talk passionately in Urdu suggesting ways to tackle the problems they are facing.

Suddenly a brother of one committee member comes in, demanding angrily: “What are you doing here? You should go back to our tent and wash my clothes instead of filling your brain with useless things.”

On this occasion, the confrontation is part of a drama performance - an event to mark International Women’s Day on Wednesday and to revisit the plight of women in the quake-affected area.

The audience of over 500 - mainly women activists from quake camps across the area - laughs loudly and applauds the improvised actors.

“This year, International Women’s Day is special for all of us as the sufferings are still very much afresh and the wounds have yet to be healed,” Magdalena Moshi of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), said at the event organised jointly by WFP, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local authorities.

“It was a disaster for the entire region, but especially so for women,” Moshi said, referring to the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that devastated an area of about 28,000 sq km in parts of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistani-administered Kashmir in early October last year.

More than 80,000 people were killed, over 100,000 injured and nearly 4 million people were rendered homeless by the quake.

“During this disaster women have been the most vulnerable. Many of them have become widows, left with children and lost their homes. And the burden of misery is falling heavily upon their shoulders,” the WFP official added.

Summera Qureshi, from a women’s camp committee highlighted the plight of many women widowed by the quake. “The earthquake created a large number of widows. Some of these women have been deprived of their property and assets and they cannot reclaim them,” Qureshi maintained.

“The media is telling us that the tent villages are going to be closed down by 31 March 2006. Where will [these] vulnerable women go?” the activist asked.

The emergency relief phase in quake-affected areas is to be wrapped up by the end of March and a one-year transition period from relief to reconstruction is to kick off on 1 April this year, the UN announced in February.

“Rehabilitation requires resources and planning. There are a large number of widows that are helpless, living in fear and trauma. They are looking towards the government, national and international NGOs as well as the UN family for help and assistance,” Qureshi noted.

Although authorities in Pakistani-administered Kashmir are planning to close down most of the camps housing those displaced by the October earthquake, a limited number of camps will probably remain open to cater for the most vulnerable, including widows, single-headed households, orphans and the sick and injured.