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Breaking down barriers in South Asia

The daughter of volunteer Surea Bibi walks in front of the rubble of what was a community health clinic before the 8 October 2005 earthquake.

A new study shows the barriers women volunteers face in South Asia and what can be done to overcome them.

WHEN a devastating earthquake struck Pakistan on 8 October 2005, Askeena Bibi left her family to volunteer away from her home near Banna town in remote Allai Valley in North-West Frontier Province.

After the earthquake, Bibi remembers being asked by a man to whom she was providing first aid, “Why are you touching a man? You are a Muslim woman.” She replied, “I am a human.”

Asked about her work, Bibi, who has a young son, replies, “We help male and female — we help everyone.”

Restrictive views of women’s roles were some of the barriers to recruiting, training and deploying women volunteers in South Asia that were analysed in an International Federation study, Women Volunteers in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of South Asia.

In it, consultant Karishma Khanna, who interviewed women volunteers in Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, described constraints including culture and social structure, lack of education, lack of time due to household and farming responsibilities, and concerns about travel and safety.

Khanna found women volunteers could be crucial to the success and sustainability of programmes on topics such as HIV/AIDS, mother and child care, water and sanitation, and psychosocial support.

While Pakistan was not part of the study, International Federation health delegate Salome Zan says many of the same issues apply there, too. “Many women in Pakistan are aware of the importance of health education. But they are often too shy to speak to anyone about their health problems, so we want to train women. But we have to approach the men first.”

To encourage women to volunteer in health programmes after the South Asia earthquake, Zan and her colleagues explained the programmes to community and religious leaders. They designed activities that would appeal to women, such as maternal and child health, adjusted schedules so women could fulfil their household responsibilities and addressed security concerns.

Salome Zan says following these steps, which are some of the 15 recommendations in the women volunteers report, not only helped strengthen the ranks of women volunteers, but also helped bring many more women and children to basic health-care units.

The goal is to help people now, but also to prepare them for future emergencies. Zan and her colleagues help communities set up health committees consisting of men and women, including teachers, mullahs, village heads and health-care workers. When disaster strikes, the committee knows how to mobilize resources quickly.

The process is painstaking, says Zan. “First, we gain the trust of male volunteers, then we train the women volunteers — this is a process that the community can accept.”

But women volunteers are essential in reaching women in the community, she says. “They work woman-to-woman. They feel closer and are more open to women than men.”

In the rubble of a former health centre an hour’s drive north of Banna stands a World Health Organization basic health unit, where volunteer Surea Bibi dispenses medicines to people who often have walked for hours to get help. As there is no Pakistan Red Crescent Society branch in the area, the basic health unit is staffed by the International Federation.

Surea Bibi, a mother of four, lives next door to the basic health unit and trained as a traditional birth attendant. After the earthquake in October 2005, she treated people with all sorts of injuries including fractures, amputated limbs and internal injuries.

“I’m happy helping people and I don’t need money. I’m thankful to the women who taught me,” she says.

Surea Bibi, who also brings other women to the basic health unit from their remote villages, has a plan for the future. “I would like to open a vocational centre for women, to explain how to prevent diarrhoea and malaria and to teach women basic skills such as hygiene and family planning.”


The daughter of volunteer Surea Bibi walks in front of the rubble of what was a community health clinic before the 8 October 2005 earthquake.

Stacey M. Winston
Stacey M. Winston is International Federation regional information delegate in South Asia.



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