It is time to remember the forgotten women of rural Sindh
The women of Thar are killing themselves. According to reports published last year, women in the drought-stricken portion of the Sindh province have been committing suicide at astonishing rates and, if an unofficial report is to be believed, almost 50 people — many of them women — have committed suicide since January 2018.
The region is by all measures one of the most desolate and investment-starved in Pakistan, its women and children often denied health care, employment, and nourishment. It is a story of institutional failure at the highest and lowest levels. On paper, nearly Rs200 million have been spent by the government on development projects in the region. In reality, there’s hardly any improvement that can be seen due to these initiatives. The reason, according to local journalists, is simple: As the power of feudal lords erodes, a new arrangement has emerged. The same local strongmen now ally with government officials, police, and sometimes the local representatives from various rural development programs and agencies, too. Development is promised to all but delivered to a few, if at all.
That is the larger context. In the case of rural women, however, everything bad becomes much worse. A United Nations report released late last year highlighted that while nearly 60 percent of rural women participate in the workforce — either by tending fields or taking care of domestic animals — only 14 percent are able to have employment on their own account that is not in the name of their fathers or husbands. The consequence of such an arrangement is that women do much of the work but enjoy little or no economic freedom which would generally come with it. Education can change these circumstances but education is very difficult to procure in rural Pakistan even as literacy rates remain shockingly low. Only four percent of Pakistan’s rural women are able to access educational facilities and lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Ambitious programs such as the National Finance Inclusion Strategy aims to get 25 percent of rural women within the financial system. This seems like an impossible task and might be yet another number to show the high aims and noble intentions of policymakers but one which may not translate into any actual results.
In terms of new and ambitious strategies, some discussion of microfinance institutions and their impact on rural women is also overdue. Once again, the horror stories emerge from the Tharparkar district. According to a local journalist, Mohammad Abbas Khaskheli, there are some in the district who are convinced that the increase in women’s suicides is due to the emergence of microfinance institutions. Poverty-stricken women go to institutions such as Thardeep Microfinance Foundation to procure loans.
The situation of rural women in Sindh and particularly in Tharparkar requires immediate and urgent attention.
Several are widows or women who have no one to support them and, in turn, have several mouths to feed. They try and set up home-based businesses which development organizations encourage them to. However, as they lack the ability to run them or ensure profits they are often unable to sustain them in the long run. In many cases, they are not able to start them at all due to unforeseen medical expenses. As the UN report also suggests, a single incident of illness or injury which requires travel to a health clinic or hospital can push a family into poverty and render those who have taken microfinance loans unable to pay them back.
Not everyone blames microfinance organizations though. Many admit that there is not one particular reason but rather a complex set of factors for the issue, even as they insist that microfinance is a way out of these problems rather than the cause for them. In the words of Bharumal Amrani, an author interviewed by Khaskheli, “Change in social behaviors of people is the real reason behind suicides in Thar. Though people commit suicide all over Sindh, Thar is in the spotlight due to drought and poverty.”
All that aside, the fact of the matter is that the women are still dying. Take for instance the case of Dhani Kohli, a woman from the Dhandra village in Nagarparkar. Dhani was found dead, and it was assumed that she had committed suicide. Soon after, neighbors started saying that it was the pressure of unpaid loans that caused Dhani to take her life. This turned out to be a lie — when the woman’s body was being washed for burial, numerous torture marks were discovered on her body. What had been assumed as a case of suicide was, in fact, most likely a homicide and the work of an abusive husband.
The situation of rural women in Sindh and particularly in Tharparkar requires immediate and urgent attention. This attention, however, seems elusive. Even as women and children die — sometimes due to famine, other times due to an outbreak of a disease, or from suicide — the rest of the country chooses to remain mum. At best, the rural women and children of Sindh find a mention in the ticker boxes that run at the bottom of TV screens even as news anchors and drama serial actors occupy the major chunk of the screen space. All of this is an indictment not simply of the government’s ineptitude or inaction but also of the gross lack of compassion and empathy on part of the rest of Pakistan’s population –- the masses that are not afflicted by poverty and pestilence as those in rural Sindh.
Pakistan and Pakistanis can do better. Timely intervention can break up the local mafias that prevent money that is meant for development projects from being used elsewhere. The urgent establishment of health care centers can further ensure that the children do not die from preventable diseases and conditions. Finally, an exhortation toward compassion and concern is required so that the plight of rural women in Sindh is no longer placed on the backburner.
– Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications.