Swat women fear Taliban return

Girls in Swat District, northwestern Pakistan, have gone back to school, and most women who had been prevented from working have returned to work, but people are still fearful.



"We worry the Taliban will return and the persecution will start again. In every neighbourhood there are people who are linked to the militants and who keep an eye on the activities of us women," Sumira Bibi, 20, who works at a cosmetics factory, told IRIN in Mingora, Swat's main town.



According to the government's National Commission on the Status of Women, there were 1,000-1,200 women factory workers in Mingora before the Taliban takeover in 2009. It is unknown how many have returned to work.



Tens of thousands of civilians were displaced from Swat in the spring and summer of 2009 due to intense fighting between government forces and Taliban militants. Most returned after the army regained control in July. (See Swat timeline)



Razia Khalid, 35, dons her blue 'burqa' each morning before accompanying, on foot, her two daughters to the nearby school where she teaches. She had never worn a 'burqa' till 2007 when local Taliban militants forced all women to wear one.



"I mentally feel like discarding it. My husband, an educated man, wants me to give it up. But I am afraid to do so," Razia told IRIN.



A deep sense of trauma exists in many places. Since November 2009, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has set up 10 welfare centres, known as "Friend's House" to offer support and counselling to those affected by conflict.









''We worry the Taliban will return and the persecution will start again. In every neighbourhood there are people who are linked to the militants and who keep an eye on the activities of us women''

"When you live through a war, the fear stays for a long time," said Sumira Bibi. For her, and for many others, it has not faded away yet.



"My mother is still afraid to send my younger sister to school, because there have been continued attacks on schools across the tribal areas. We see reports in the media almost daily. She would also like me not to work, but we need the money," Sumira said.



Tension



There are also reports from Swat that state action against militants is continuing, adding to the tension.



"We have credible reports of arbitrary detentions, including female relatives of militants," Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told IRIN.



Peace is still elusive in Swat: Thirteen people were killed and at least 40 injured in a suicide attack in Mingora's Nishat Chowk area earlier this month.



"It could have been any of us, or our children. So many women go there to shop, or run errands and collect children from school," said Uzma Bano, 50. She said there was a sense of increased militant activity, as the official focus switches to other places where militants are entrenched. "We fear the Taliban could attempt a comeback of some kind".



Meanwhile, Sardar Hussain Babak, education minister for the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has told the media in Peshawar that since December 2009 there has been a 1 percent increase in female enrolment. This is a significant development in a part of the country where, according to official figures, the literacy rate for women stands at below 23 percent.



"Parents are now bringing in girls to enrol at schools every day. They are more confident about this," Zubaida Khan, the head of a local private school for girls, told IRIN.



School infrastructure, however, is "in ruins", according to Ibrash Pasha, an activist with the NGO Khwendo Kor, which works for the education of girls.



kh/at/cb