Floods and Feminism: The Plight of Pakistan’s Women

As Pakistan’s flood crisis continues into its fourth week, it is the women who are suffering the most. Millions displaced by the flood waters languish with few resources to alleviate their suffering. According to statistics compiled by the Reproductive Health in Crisis Consortium, nearly 85 percent of flood survivors in camps are women [PDF]. In some cases, this is because men stayed behind to guard the homes and livestock while women and children were evacuated; in others, it’s because families got separated while on the move. With nearly 20 million people displaced by the floods and perhaps 6 million made homeless, the havoc wreaked on Pakistani women is unimaginable.

Reports broadcast on Pakistani television detail how those in the big-city camps, many of whom have never before left their villages, are now eking out a marginal existence. Many have turned to begging because they are unable to fight the mobs that compete for relief supplies. An Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report [PDF] dated August 16, 2010 points out that large numbers of nursing mothers are without access to food, and potable water is scarce. And according to the latest U.N report, millions of Pakistani children are at risk for water borne illnesses such as dysentery and cholera, with at least one case of the latter already reported. Many children are already suffering from diarrhea, acute respiratory infections and skin conditions, said Paul Garwood, a spokesman for the World Health Organization.

The immediate risk of disease is only one of the daunting concerns facing women. Current aid efforts do not consider the needs of women in the camps, especially those of lactating mothers and pregnant women. Workers visiting the camps have heard stories of women being beaten by husbands frustrated at the paltry aid available. In addition, cultural constraints prevent women from being able to find supplies themselves.

Despite the repeated pleas of U.N. officials, aid has been painfully slow to arrive, with the U.N. collecting only half of the $460 million it says it needs to meet the needs of millions of survivors. Statistics from the American Red Cross show that a recent effort in which they collaborated with U.S. cell-phone carriers to gather donations for the disaster yielded only $10,000–about .03 percent of what a similar effort yielded for Haiti. While $1087.33 was collected per victim for Haiti’s earthquake, only $16.36 has been collected for the victims of Pakistan’s floods from donors worldwide. Many reasons have been offered for the inability of the world’s wealthiest to open their hearts and pocketbooks to the plight of Pakistanis, from donor fatigue to general suspicion of a country that is deceptively constructed in the American imagination as a monolithic haven for terrorists.

For feminists, the crisis in Pakistan presents particularly tough questions regarding the ability of women around the world to come together for a humanitarian cause. Despite the fact that Pakistan remains a prominent ally, few American women’s groups have initiated campaigns to either collect funds for flood survivors or to coordinate efforts that would insist that American aid be disbursed in a way that insures that women’s needs are accounted for. While the Global Fund for Women has mounted an admirable effort to raise funds for flood-affected women in Pakistan, the issue has failed to gain significant traction among feminist groups, even those that have been focusing on the region with campaigns on ending the American military presence there. The silence points to some of my worst fears: that the fervor of arguments preaching immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan may have bled into a general attitude that wants nothing to do with the region at all. Simultaneously, as I discuss here, the admirable push to empower Afghan and Iraqi women may at times slide into the wishful thinking that they can perform a miraculous, by-the-bootstraps self-empowerment, without support. Could an unfortunate consequence of such thinking be that respect for the ability of Pakistani women to help themselves without foreign interference has been crudely transformed into the belief that they do not need any help from feminists around the world? Indeed, acknowledging the integral possibility of self-empowerment must not impose an insularity on global feminism that prevents solidarity at crucial times of humanitarian catastrophe. These unfortunate realities are abstract and achingly difficult to explain to the hundreds of thousands of women crouching in small makeshift beds and holding crying babies who continue to ask aid workers why the world does not care about them.

So the question stands for us to answer: Has global feminism been ravaged by the contentious debates over Iraq and Afghanistan, or can it revive in the face of the worst humanitarian disaster in the history of the United Nations?

If you would like to donate to Pakistan’s flood victims, you may do so via credit card through Oxfam America’s secure site, or text FLOOD to 27722 in order to donate $10 through the State Department Fund to help flood affectees.

Women served by flood-relief efforts disembark from U.S. Army helicopter in Khwazahkela, Pakistan, from Flickr user The U.S. Army under Creative Commons 2.0.


Rafia Zakaria is the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled "Negotiating Identity: Sharia, multiculturalism and Muslim women." Rafia writes a weekly column for the DAWN newspaper which is the largest and oldest English newspaper in Pakistan. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Arts and Letters Daily, the Nation and the American Prospect. She is the only Pakistani American woman recognized by a joint resolution of the Indiana House and Senate for her work on women's rights.