Swat’s forgotten flood and terror victims

Nissa Bibi, 40, carries a mobile phone on an orange ribbon round her neck in the hope that her sister – Shahina Bibi who recently returned to their home village in the Kabal area of Swat valley in northern Pakistan – will call, according to an IRIN report.
Bibi, 35, had lived with Nissa and her family for nearly two and a half years after conflict began between militants and the Pakistan Army in Swat Valley in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa Province in 2007. Recently, she decided to return home to try and revive the farm that she and her four children now manage after her husband was killed in fighting in 2009.
“I do not see how my sister can carry out the heavy work on the farm. Her eldest son is only 12 and cannot help her much,” Nissa told IRIN.
According to a study commissioned by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the problems faced by women like Bibi in post-conflict Swat have not been well understood.
The report by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences says the approach to post-conflict problems in Swat has been narrow, focusing primarily on security issues. It notes that in many cases due account has not been taken of the devastating 2010 floods in Swat which aggravated problems for single-headed households.
A separate limited assessment carried out in 2009 in 10 union councils in Swat by the NGO Save the Children, UK, found that around 4 percent of households were headed by women. Swat Valley, according to official figures, has a population of around 1,257,600.
Many of these are women who lost husbands and fathers in the conflict which continued over a prolonged period as militants began campaigns in the mid 1990s.
“Many people feel they have received too little help from the government and NGOs,” said Faisal Khan who works for a local NGO in Mingora, the principal city of Swat. “The women who have been left as widows, or who lost fathers in the fighting are aware of this and have decided in some cases to try and manage on their own.”
He explained that the post-conflict situation in which a significant number of women had been left on their own was unique in the history of Swat.
“I had to ask my own sister-in-law, a widow, to go back to her home with her daughters, as my small hotel was washed away in the 2010 floods and I myself had no means to earn a livelihood. I felt terrible, but there was no choice,” said Azam Khan, who is today trying to re-build his hotel in the Kalam area of Swat.
STRATEGIES: “I know I have a good home with my sister is Peshawar. But it is important to me that my children grow up in their own home and that I learn to stand on my own feet,” said Bibi. She told IRIN she gained support from other women in her village, and was able to seek the help of the local village `jirga’ (gathering of elders) by asking a neighbour to put her issues before it.
According to the Norad study, women have used strategies such as this to solve problems – while some villages also have a group of women able to represent the concerns of others at `jirga’ meetings, which are traditionally not attended by women. This is especially true in conservative areas such as Swat.
Many women, however, faced severe hardship in the months following the end of the conflict in July 2009. Bibi’s husband has been missing for the past two years, and she does not know whether he is alive or dead. “I wait each day in the hope that he will return,” she said. “It is possible he was captured by the army or by the militants, though he had nothing to do with the fighting,” she told IRIN from her village near Mingora.
While Bibi has been able to send her three small children back to school and makes a living by sewing clothes, she finds it difficult to take her produce (vegetables and eggs) to the marketplace, which would significantly augment her income.
Other women live with a sense of insecurity lurking over them. “We were very badly treated by the Taliban. They seem to have gone for now, but we do not know when they may return and once more track down on women and stop us from even stepping out of our homes,” said Yasmeen Bibi, 25, who supports her elderly parents by working at a cosmetics factory.
She had given up work for two years under Taliban rule and said “it took a lot of courage to go back in 2011, but I had no choice as I have no brothers, my other sisters are married with their own families and there was no one else to bring in money to pay for my parents needs and for the health care they require.”

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