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Field diary: Conversations with flood-affected pregnant women in Pakistan

© UNICEF Pakistan/2010/Yousaf
A group of women with sick and malnourished children wait to see a doctor at a local rural health centre in Pakistan's flood zone.

Planning Specialist Faisal Yousaf, from UNICEF's Public Sector Alliances and Resource Mobilization Office in New York, sent the following firsthand account of a visit to flood-affected areas of Pakistan.

By Faisal Yousaf

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – More than half a million pregnant women have been affected by the recent, unprecedented flooding in Pakistan. Further adding to the innate difficulty of bearing children in the middle of a disaster are the various complications that often arise when dealing with traditional family structures, as well as the ingrained social attitudes towards women, particularly in rural areas.

In order to understand the reality of the situation firsthand, I decided to meet some of the women in an area hard-hit by the floods and to capture their experiences before returning to my home base in New York.

Providing encouragement for this undertaking was a UNICEF driver in Islamabad who shared with me what he’d seen in the field. The plight and special circumstances of these women concerned him so deeply that he personally mobilized 25,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly $300) to buy food and supplies for them.

Loss of livelihoods

Deep inside the Punjab province of central Pakistan lies the tiny village of Kat Wali Jhook. This is where my interviews took place. Joining me amidst the devastated fields of cotton, sugarcane and mango were my colleagues from UNICEF and the local health department.

We were welcomed with enormous hospitality by a family in the village who allowed us to converse with some women who had recently been displaced by the floods.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2010/Yousaf
A large number of women in flood-hit areas of Pakistan are ill and unable to produce breastmilk.

Sitting on a traditional string bed with a hanging cloth cot for an infant, one of the pregnant women, in her late thirties, relayed the difficulties they faced.

Before the floods, she used to pick vegetables earning a meagre 80 rupees ($1) a day. A vast expanse of stagnant floodwater now cruelly submerges the crops that once provided her living. With her income swallowed by the roiling waters, her health and the health of her unborn child have become increasingly vulnerable.

Rebuilding community health

Over the years, Pakistan has built up a robust system of community-based health services through a large network of tens of thousands of Lady Health Workers (LHWs), who provide the first line of defence against diseases in remote rural areas of the country.

LHWs maintain a register of all pregnant women and children under the age of five in their respective communities. But this network has been severely disrupted in the flood zone, where many LHWs themselves became displaced.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2010/Yousaf
Faisal Yousaf, Planning Specialist with UNICEF's Public Sector Alliances and Resource Mobilization Office in New York, met with pregnant women in Pakistan's flood zone.

One of the lactating women I met with in the village was a local LHW who had been cut off from the rest of her village for days by the floodwaters. Eventually, she had to resort to using a home-made boat in order to reach a nearby basic health facility. She now struggles to resume her work due to lack of medical supplies such as oral rehydration salts, vaccines, and safe-delivery and newborn kits.

Rebuilding the LHWs network is one of the top priorities of UNICEF Pakistan and partners. UNICEF is planning to support displaced LHWs and community midwives with additional supplies, basic equipment and operational costs.

Alternative employment

Male members of rural families in Pakistan normally provide vital support to women during their pregnancy period. Unfortunately, a large number of men in the village have left for nearby industrial towns to seek alternative employment opportunities – mainly as day labourers – since they are unable to work the land that has been inundated.

Usually, men accompany women and help with transportation to nearby health facilities for medical check-ups and delivery. One of the women told me that she could not go to a rural health centre for examination as her husband was not with her these days; she is now dependent on her mother-in-law and relatives.

On our way back to the office, we ran into UNICEF’s logistics staff at a local restaurant. I was glad to learn that my colleagues were working day and night to get urgently needed health and nutrition supplies to millions of children and women like those with whom I had just met.



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