Where Swat women fear to tread

There has been some return to normality in Pakistan's troubled Swat District since the army's military campaign in the area, but fear of Taliban militants persists and is affecting people's - especially women's - lives.

"I still do not dare venture out without my burqa, though there are more and more brave women who do, wearing only `chadors' [shawls]. Under the Taliban, we were constantly warned to cover ourselves and ordered not to leave our homes," Razia Bibi, 30, a teacher at a private school for girls, told IRIN in Mingora, Swat's principal town.

Razia stopped teaching last year "after a militant followed me home, knocked threateningly at our door and warned my husband to stop me going out to work," she said. She has not dared return to teaching even after the recent army successes.

"Those who associated themselves with the militants are still around. I have lost confidence, even after eight years of work, and am scared to go out," she said.

Sahar Gul, research coordinator for the government's National Commission on the Status of Women, told IRIN many female teachers were afraid to go back to their workplaces "due to the fear of threats and targeted killings".

Gul also said the 1,000-1,200 Swat women who used to work in cosmetics factories before the Taliban appeared were now jobless after the factories closed down. Many in the garments sector were also unemployed for the same reason, she added.

Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN

Feeling the pinch

Razia's family is feeling the pinch: "We used up our savings when we were displaced and it is tough supporting my two children on just my earnings as an accountant," said Razia's husband, Muhammad Jamil. But he understands his wife's reluctance to go back to work: "Few women were left unscarred by what happened here and the abuse they suffered at the hands of men wielding sticks," he said.

The situation is worse still for women who have no one to support them. "My husband stayed behind during the conflict when I went to Mardan with my three children, and is missing. We assume he is dead," said Samreena Bibi, 28. Samreena had worked as a seamstress before she was married. "No one gives me a job now. Some say they do not employ women. How am I to feed my children?"

Like other women, she feels unsafe going to a bazaar without a male escort - especially after the most recent attacks in Mingora. "This means I must ask my elderly father or a brother-in-law to help [me] even buy a few vegetables," she said. "Our life has become very difficult."

Security concerns mean "there remains a lack of women in the workforce in most areas of return," according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) situation report of 3 September.

Gul bemoans the changed circumstances: "Before Talibanization, women used to go out in Mingora for all daily routines, including employment, [but not any more]" she said.

Concern for women-headed households

Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies have expressed concern over the plight of women who head households. According to Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), which has been collecting data on internally displaced persons (IDPs) since displacements began in May, 12.2 percent of all registered IDPs are female heads of households.

However, according to an OCHA report of 11 September, World Food Programme (WFP) data show that only 10.4 to 11.3 percent of the monthly food distribution goes to women. These findings suggest that a disproportionate number of female-headed households are not receiving their food entitlements each month. OCHA said this was an ongoing concern, with similar discrepancies showing up in July and August.