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FemAid reports from Pakistan: 2003
Femaid’s fact-finding trip to Pakistan - a rambling report
October 23rd- November 2nd 2003

The aim of this trip was a dual one : first to see how our projects are developing and second to pursue my ongoing anthropological research on the subject of Afghan female refugees in camps. I travelled to Islamabad and Rawalpindi to visit RAWA’s Malalai Hospital, and the Hewat school, to Peshawar to the Sitara orphanage and then to spend some time in the refugee camp where RAWA is prominent. Whilst in Islamabad, I also met Saadia of NAWA the Pakistani group we are also working with in the Gilgit Hunza area, Although Afghan refugees and work with RAWA remain our priority, we have felt that in a country crushed by overwhelming poverty which has been hosting the refugee population for a quarter of a century, it is only fair to contribute to a particularly worthwhile Pakistani project.
Travelling regularly by public transport across the country, one gets a fair idea of how the country is moving along, especially as this is my fourth trip in two years. The further north one goes (in direction of Peshawar, the NWFP and Afghanistan), the more police controls multiply and the hold of the fundamentalist-friendly local government (ruled by the MMA) becomes obvious. As a female, one would be ill-advised to travel wearing anything else than local shalwar-kamiz, concealing one’s head in a scarf and the camera in a handbag (or vice-versa). Not a place for indolent tourists or the faint of heart…

An unfashionable cause

The cause of Afghan women appears to have been near enough forgotten, overtaken by the events in Irak that have somehow made the cause of Afghan women yesterday’s news, except for a few die-hards. A situation which is not helped by the maddening self-congratulatory, border line fraudulent reports and statements issued by UNESCO (such as the one dated October 3rd) about the million girls purportedly returning to school and the supposedly safe conditions in which women are giving birth.
Needless to say, this is wishful thinking at best-because if this were just a tiny percentage of the truth, the refugees I met in refugee camps and slums would have run back to their homeland which they have been dreaming about for a quarter of a century. In rural Afghanistan, that is to say places where Western journalists are too afraid to travel, girls’schools are being torched by fundamentalists and the maternal mortality rate continues to be the highest in the world.
Hardly an enticement to return for these refugees, many of whom are by now second generation, not to say third (in view of the early age at which girls give birth) Statistics show that an important number have indeed gone back, especially the educated minority hailing from cities, but the flow seems to have slowed down dramatically and many in fact do sneak back into Pakistan, unbeknown by the authorities.

Hospitals and medical aid

I first travelled to Islamabad and Rawalpindi t to review RAWA’s projects, in particular those we are supporting in the area. The Malalai hospital continues to cater for women and children living in mud-huts by the highway or sheds made of sticks and tattered rags. Huddling in their burqas, they walk for hours or else pile up in a rickshaw to get there, clutching painfully thin infants. The diseases are those engendered by poverty and lack of immunization of these people who simply do not exist in any statistics, born and frequently dying in anonymous filth. I have to say that this fate is not just reserved to Afghan refugees but also to the local population who frequently live in equally miserable conditions, but may have access to some vague semblance of official medical aid and recognition. But what can you expect of a country that spends 65% of its budget on armament and 5% in development and social services ? Private charity takes over in lieu of coherent policies, in the form of assorted NGOs of variable enthusiasm and efficiency and at the lowest level, by private bouts of zakat, especially in this month of Ramadan : the poor crowd round bakeries so that customers can donate a few loaves which are then distributed- surely the wrong word. In an Afghan slum, bread which yours truly bought for about hundred people sitting in the dirt along the pavement was literally flung at them by the baker wielding a stick, as if feeding pigeons or stray dogs.
RAWA runs the only free clinic for Afghans in Islamabad, the Malalai hospital ; this valiant effort has been sponsored up till now by hard-working support groups (especially AWM), but as we all know Irak (or is it Arnold ?) seems to have taken precedence over Afghanistan, not to mention the ubiquitous growing personal crisis which justifiably mobilize many people’s resources in these depressed times. As a result, RAWA envisages having to cut down on what they offer if the situation does not improve within a year, turning it into dispensary, open in the mornings only such as the one they run in Quetta, which I visited last January. So what is going to happen to those women who choose to give birth elsewhere than muddy floors, those kids operated from appendicitis, those unremoved gallstones, those unrepaired bones and festering wounds ? They’ll just have to go back and die much in the same way as they have hitherto lived, in filth, relentless misery and pain.

On October 23rd, we sent two convoys of mainly medical equipment by plane, one to Pakistan, one to Afghanistan. The first was for RAWA’s Malalai hospital and also to the Pakistani group NAWA which works in the Hunza area (for more details see the site). Fourteen large crates are presently sitting, as we speak, in the Islamabad customs whilst someone finds the right person to, shall we say, ‘negotiate’ with in order to get it all released at, we pray, a not too extortionate price…
And we will have to pay a daily fee for the time this convoy is at customs, forcible rent of unwanted space, if you will. The twenty-seven crates of medical instruments and first aid kids along with baby clothes we sent to the Rabia Balkhi maternity hospital in Kabul on the same date are experiencing a similar fate- having been ‘lost’ for a week between Islamabad to Kabul…. It always gets there in the end, but it’s so nerve-racking !
That’s one of the most maddening aspects about sending aid, the sheer perversity of the complexities of actually getting anything there… . I have set myself the task of exploring the various shipping possibilities and rates ‘offered’ by different ports and clearance points. Ever since I started organizing convoys for Bosnia ten years ago, one of my chief regrets is not having a truck-driver’s license !
Such research is all the more important as we are planning to send more medical material and hospital furniture such as gynaecological tables. Such material is available at low cost in France (and elsewhere) simply because hospitals renew their equipment every ten years or so and often get rid of the older one. Same thing with instruments : I brought a couple of dozen metal specula to delighted doctors both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, simply because nowadays gynaecologists in the West use discardable plastic equipment. There is so much surgical equipment around which would really be a boon to other parts of the world. This is something we will be working on in the future, the recycling of medical resources.

Hewat school and schooling

RAWA has cut down its three schools to one in Rawalpindi, catering for 400 pupils who come for two shifts. We have been paying teachers’ salaries for the past 2 years for these schools and also the one in the refugee camp. Now there is more staff and various expenses, including a pay-rise, so the expenses will remain the same.
As there is no free education for Afghans, this community relies on this kind of private school of which a number have been established, come and gone by different political and social groups during the past 25 years. RAWA’s schools and various facilities, unlike others, are free. The curriculum tries to follow the official Afghan one in order to prepare the children for the schooling they should be going back to once back home. Of course, there is a continuing sense of frustration in receiving an education for a promised land which seems to remain inaccessible, whilst not learning anything (such as Urdu) which might help to integrate more in Pakistan where the vast majority of these kids have been born and brought up. The RAWA school caters to girls as well as boys and offers adult literacy classes for women (‘adult’ designating anyone married which could and often means a 13 year old student sitting with women twice or three times her age) . An extra budget has to be sometimes included for those husbands who begrudge their wives’ attempts at education- they have to be paid off with a few ounces of tea and ghee… But as I have realized, by now, the most enthusiastic student in the world is the intelligent previously suppressed adult woman who has belatedly discovers literacy and just can’t enough of it…Some of the staunchest, most active RAWA militants are precisely admirable women of this kind.
Education provides the only possibility of developing any form of awareness to women locked into the traditional system of self-abnegation and mindless submission. Nevertheless, learning in schools all over the sub-continent is generally done by rote, with kids repeating lessons without much aim at comprehension, just as they chant Koran in Arabic in the madrassas, without understanding a single world. Inter-active learning, criticism and debate do not take place before university. In all RAWA-sponsored schools, debates and discussions are organized, which is all the more important for girls brought up in the traditional way. Nevertheless, the boys are the most vocal in schools, whereas as the girls excel at written work.