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
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
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
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
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,”
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.”