Conservative Pakistan's Quest for Gender-Sensitive Disaster Response

Rescuers in disaster-prone Khyber Pakhtunkhwa often face resistance whenever a situation arises during rescue operations where they come in direct contact with women, forcing them to prioritise the rescue of men before women and children

Conservative Pakistan's Quest for Gender-Sensitive Disaster Response

The 2022 floods in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa devastated large parts of the province. Specifically in the Dir district, flooding in the Panjkora River spilled over, sweeping away the entire riverbed and numerous structures, agricultural land, shops, and markets which had stood for decades. As brave rescue teams of the provincial rescue department attempted to evacuate stranded families, they ran into a unique challenge: reluctance from men in several families in the conservative district who asked the male rescuers not to touch the women in their family or help them directly in any way.

Pakistan has persistently occupied a high spot in the list of the top ten most vulnerable countries on German Watch's Climate Risk Index for the past twenty years. This has manifested itself in a slew of natural disasters across the country, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A research article published in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) noted that the risk of flooding has increased in South Asia due to high vulnerability and exposure. Floods are ranked second in human mortality, causing natural disaster events, and the 2022 flood in Pakistan left over 1,600 dead and displaced about 33 million people. 

The research article noted that the 2022 floods highlighted the adaptation challenges South Asia has been facing and the substantial need for climate mitigation to reduce the risk of such events. 

The conservative culture of locals and the higher probability of natural disasters means that the interaction between rescue workers and residents could become frequent.

Pashtuns dominate Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While the Pashtun culture is diverse, the people are largely conservative. Those who live in cities are comparatively liberal compared to those who live in rural and more remote areas of the province, which are steeped in tradition. The people in these areas jealously guard their culture, practising it in its purest form. This culture includes great concern for their women, maintaining the concept of segregation and not exposing them to outsiders.

Taj Nabi* (a pseudonym because he did not want to be identified by his name) was a resident of Upper Dir. Sitting in the main hall of the Tableeghi Markaz in Mardan, recalled the horrors brought on by the excessive rains and the raging river. Even though he had to flee his home nearly two years ago, the 41-year-old remembers the night of thunderous rain as if it were yesterday. Amid the loud drum of rain and roar of the Panjkora River, he heard his pregnant wife call out in intense pain. She had to deliver their baby without having a midwife or any other trained professional or family assisting her.

"I was terrified. Hearing my wife yelling and seeing her deliver a baby while I was unable to do anything," recalled Nabi, adding that it was the first time he was witnessing the process of childbirth.

A day before his wife gave birth,  Nabi said that residents of their village had noticed the water levels in the Panjkora River rising. Residents were apprehensive that a heavy flood in the river could spill over and damage roads leading to and from the village. Despite his wife being eight months pregnant, Nabi decided to evacuate, but he stopped when his wife insisted on staying for another day. Nabi said his wife was concerned about venturing outdoors where strangers could see her in a state of heavy pregnancy or if she was touched by "non-Mehrums" (those with whom the woman is not in a familial or legal relation).

"The same night, the water level in the river suddenly increased and came very close to us. We started moving up the mountain along with my pregnant wife," Nabi said.

He further said that due to their strenuous hike up the rough mountain paths with a river raging below, his wife had trouble climbing up, and her health deteriorated. Nabi said they managed to reach a safe place where she delivered a baby. Unfortunately, the baby could only survive for an hour.

The baby was not the only casualty in the floods. Some 306 people perished in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including 149 men, 41 women and 116 children. Additionally, 369 individuals sustained injuries, including 156 men, 79 women and 134 children. 

Taj Nabi visits his village once a month in memory of his child. But he has all but ruled out a permanent move back to his village in Upper Dir due to the risk of another disaster.

Khalid Waqas, the president of Alkhidmat Foundation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said that as part of their relief operations, especially during natural disasters, they also conduct rescue operations across Pakistan. He confirmed that rescuers often face hesitation from male members of families in the northern areas whenever a situation arises during rescue operations where they come in direct contact with women. This unique situation forces them to subvert their basic training and prioritise the rescue of men before women and children.

"Our primary priority is to first rescue women and children in disasters; in most cases, we do it smoothly. However, sometimes, specifically during the 2022 floods, we faced reluctance. Still, we managed it because of the good reputation of the Alkhidmat Foundation," Waqas said.

In such a scenario, he said that their rescue teams have had to adapt and coerce the male members of such families into holding on to their females, helping the rescuers evacuate them to safer places while avoiding any loss or injury due to cultural barriers.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted in 2015 in Sendai, Japan, and signed by 187 countries, including Pakistan. The framework aims to enhance global resilience, emphasising the integration of gender perspectives into disaster response and addressing the disproportionate impact of disasters on women, ensuring their active participation in decision-making and resilience-building efforts. It marks a significant step towards a more inclusive and equitable approach to disaster risk reduction.

Waqas stated that on multiple occasions, they submitted proposals to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, requesting space to build a disaster centre to train volunteers in rescue operations, especially women rescuers and divers. Waqas explained that inducting women into the volunteer rescue force would ensure rescue services could mount gender-sensitive disaster responses in culturally sensitive areas of the province. 

Waqas lamented that our proposal has been consistently rejected.

The provincial government recognises the cultural barriers faced by women and that they need to include women in the provincial disaster response network as they craft disaster response policies. However, progress in that regard has been slow, with rescue teams in many districts comprised entirely of men. The provincial government has also faced a challenge in attracting women to work in the sector.

Muhammad Siddique, a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for the Gender and Child Cell within the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), said the government had realised this problem before Pakistan became a signatory to the Sendai Framework. Hence, the PDMA established the Gender and Child Cell in 2013 to develop and implement gender-sensitive policy guidelines, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and coordination mechanisms at the district and provincial levels for both public and private-sector humanitarian organisations operating in the province.

He said PDMA is developing a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) policy under the Sendai Framework. However, he said it is still in the initial stages and will be included in the Provincial Disaster Management Plan 2024-29, which is currently being processed. Both endeavours, he said, aim to ensure that disaster response is inclusive and gender-sensitive.

"PDMA has almost developed the Gender-based Violence and Emergency (GBV&E) framework, pending printing. The GBV&E, under the theme of 'Leave no one behind', a District Disaster Management Unit will be formed to ensure an inclusive response mechanism and humanitarian responses by providing guidelines for pre-, during, and post-disaster action," said Siddique.

"We have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with seven universities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We have incorporated content on protection, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), and other disaster terminologies into their courses. The goal is to educate them about protection in emergencies, raise awareness about disaster vulnerability, mitigate risks, and train them in preparedness and safe evacuation during emergencies and disasters," the PDMA official added.

To avoid gender-based issues and ensure a gender-sensitive disaster response, he said a portion of vacancies for front-line rescuers in the provincial Rescue 1122 department have been reserved for women to provide first aid and safe evacuation and exit to women affected by disasters. However, he admitted that the ratio of women in the force remains quite low. Despite that, he was hopeful this ratio would increase in the future.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Rescue 1122 Assistant Director Niaz Ali said that Emergency Rescue Service (ERS) 1122 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has permanent positions for women disaster rescuers and currently has 20-25 women serving in this position.

He added that their staff are well-trained professionals, including both men and women, who can handle all types of incidents or situations across the diverse landscape of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He asserted that men and women rescuers work side by side as a team and can handle all kinds of incidents/situations in the conservative northern areas.

However, Abdur Rahman, a media coordinator for Rescue 1122 in Dir District, said that at the moment, the team of rescuers working in the district do not include any women.

He further said that their rescuers are trained to follow and respect cultural sensitivities while responding to disasters. When responding to calls, they often ask families for permission before starting any evacuation.

"The induction of women rescuers would strengthen [the ability of rescue teams when it comes to ] gender sensitivity and further speed up our disaster response," said Abdur Rehman.

Relief Deputy Director Asma Khyber Khan, while admitting the existence of cultural barriers while providing humanitarian assistance to people in most regions of the province,  said that since the PDMA works in coordination with the district administration, they usually seek help from women officers in the district administration when responding to disasters to mitigate any resistance they may face and when directly communicating with resident women.

"But yes, it's a big issue for some organisations or departments like Rescue 1122", said Asma.

She added that the disaster response cannot be considered fully gender-sensitive, as women often do not come forward due to the inherent risk involved in rescue work. Moreover, she said the field lacks an environment conducive to women, resulting in issues during the implementation stage.

However, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Rescue 1122 Public Relations Officer (PRO) Bilal Faizi contradicted Ali and said the force currently only includes five women disaster rescuers.

"We are still lacking the appropriate number of female disaster rescuers," Ali conceded, adding, "The problem is that women either often do not apply for the post or fail the training."

He added that recently, they announced a vacant position for women divers, but not a single woman applied for the position.

An official of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Commission on the Status of Women (KPCSW) said the government had made efforts to educate and sensitise residents of conservative areas of the province about gender issues. 

In this regard, the KPCSW official said that in addition to conducting seminars and training sessions for government departments to sensitise them about gender issues, the commission intends to hold workshops and training sessions with PDMA and Rescue 1122 to help rescuers understand and clarify gender issues and recommend best practices on gender-sensitive disaster responses in pre-, during-, and post-disaster response.

*Name changed of interviewee upon their request not to identify them by name.

The author is a freelance multimedia journalist with a keen interest in environmental issues, gender equality, and peace.