Inter Press Service » Zofeen Ebrahim News and Views from the Global South Tue, 25 Apr 2017 23:43:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Heat Wave Picking Off Pakistan’s Urban Poor Thu, 25 Jun 2015 16:23:52 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Children from informal settlements in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi, are often sent out with large containers to fetch water from taps outside private homes, set up by wealthier residents as an act of charity. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

Children from informal settlements in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi, are often sent out with large containers to fetch water from taps outside private homes, set up by wealthier residents as an act of charity. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jun 25 2015 (IPS)

Over 950 people have perished in just five days. The morgues, already filled to capacity, are piling up with bodies, and in over-crowded hospitals the threat of further deaths hangs in the air.

Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, home to over 23 million people, is gasping in the grip of a dreadful heat wave, the worst the country has experienced since the 1950s, according to the Meteorology Department.

“In all my 25 years of service, I’ve never seen so many dead bodies arriving in such a short time." -- Mohammad Bilal, head of the Edhi Foundation’s morgue
Temperatures rose to 44.8 degrees Celsius on Saturday, Jun. 20, dropped slightly the following day and then shot back up to 45 degrees on Tuesday, Jun. 23 putting millions in this mega-city at risk of heat stroke.

Though the entire southern Sindh Province is affected – recording 1,100 deaths in total – its capital city, Karachi, has been worst hit – particularly due to the ‘urban heat island’ phenomenon, which climatologists say make 45-degree temperatures feel like 50-degree heat.

In this scenario, heat becomes trapped, turning the city into a kind of slow-cooking oven.

Every single resident is feeling the heat, but the majority of those who have succumbed to it come from Karachi’s army of poor, twice cursed by a lack of access to electricity and condemned to live in crowded, informal settlements that offer little respite from the scorching sun.

Already crushed by dismal health indicators, the poor have scant means of avoiding sun exposure, which intensifies their vulnerability.

Anwar Kazmi, spokesperson for the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s biggest charity, tells IPS that 50 percent of the dead were picked up from the streets, and likely included beggars, drug users and daily wage labourers with no choice but to defy government advisories to stay indoors until the blaze has passed.

Two days into the crisis, with every free space occupied and corpses arriving by the hundreds, the city’s largest morgue, run by the same charity, began burying bodies that had not been claimed.

“In all my 25 years of service, I’ve never seen so many dead bodies arriving in such a short time,” Mohammad Bilal, who heads the Edhi Foundation’s mortuary, tells IPS.

The government has come under fire for neglecting to sound the alarm in advance. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah issued belated warnings by ordering the closure of schools and government offices.

Hospitals, meanwhile, are groaning under the strain of attempting to treat some 40,000 people across the province suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Saeed Quraishy, medical superintendent at Karachi’s largest government-run Civil Hospital, says they have stopped all elective admissions in order to focus solely on emergencies cases.

Experts say this highlights, yet again, the country’s utter lack of preparedness for climate-related tragedies.

And as always – as with droughts, floods or any other extreme weather events – the poor are the first to die off in droves.

Energy and poverty

The crisis is shedding light on several converging issues with which Pakistan has been grappling: energy shortages, the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor and the fallout from rapid urbanisation. In Karachi, the country’s most populous metropolis, these problems are magnified manifold.

Though a census has not been carried out since 1998, NGOs say there are hundreds of millions who live and work on the streets, including beggars, hawkers and manual labourers.

More than 62 percent of the population here lives in informal settlements, with a density of nearly 6,000 people per square kilometre.

Many of them have no access to basic services like water and electricity, both crucial during times of extreme weather. The ‘kunda’ system, in which power is illegally tapped from the electrical mains, is a popular way around the ‘energy apartheid’.

Just this month, the city’s power utility company pulled down 1,500 such illicit ‘connections’.

But even the 46 percent of households across the country that are connected to the national electric grid are not guaranteed an uninterrupted supply. With Pakistan facing a daily energy shortage of close to 4,000 mega watts, power outages of up to 20 hours a day are not unusual.

At such moments, wealthier families can fall back on generators. But for the estimated 91 million people in the country who live on less than two dollars a day, there is no ‘Plan B’ – there is only a battle for survival, which too many in the last week have fought and lost.

For the bottom half of Pakistani society, official notifications on how to beat the heat are simply in one ear and out the other.

Taking lukewarm showers, using rehydration salts or staying indoors are not options for families eking out a living on 1.25 dollars or those who live in informal settlements where hundreds of households must share a single tap.

The government has advised residents of Pakistan’s port city of Karachi to stay indoors until a deadly heat wave passes, but for daily wage labourers this is not an option: no money means no food. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

The government has advised residents of Pakistan’s port city of Karachi to stay indoors until a deadly heat wave passes, but for daily wage labourers this is not an option: no money means no food. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

Lashing out at the government’s indifference and belated response to the crisis, Dr. Tasneem Ahsan, former executive director of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), tells IPS that preventive action could have saved countless lives.

“The government should have taken up large spaces like marriage halls and schools and turned them into shelters, supplying electricity and water for people to come and cool down there.”

She also says officials could have parked water bowsers in poorer localities for people to douse themselves, advised the population on appropriate clothing and distributed leaflets on simple ways to keep cool.

The media, too, are at fault, she contends, for reporting the death count like sports scores instead of spreading the word on cost-effective, life-saving tips “like putting a wet towel on the head”.

Government inaction

Intermittent protests against power outages, aimed largely at the city’s main power company, K-Electric, served as a prelude to the present tragedy.

Though the country has an installed electricity capacity of 22,797 MW, production stands at a dismal 16,000 MW. In recent years, electricity demand has risen to 19,000 MW, meaning scores of people are either sharing a single power line or going without energy.

Meanwhile, civil society has been stepping in to fill the void left by the government, with far better results than some official attempts to provide emergency relief.

With most hospitals paralyzed by the number of patients, volunteers like Dr. Tasneem Butt, working the JPMC, have taken matters into their own hands. Using social media as a platform, she has circulated a list of necessary items including 100-200 bed sheets, 500 towels, bottled water, 15-20 slabs of ice and – perhaps most importantly – more volunteers.

“I got them immediately,” she tells IPS. “Now I’ve asked people to hold on to their pledges while I arrange for chillers and air-conditioners.

“The emergency ward is suffocating,” she adds. “It’s not just the patients who need to be kept cool, even the overworked doctors need this basic environment to be able to work optimally.”

Last week, the government of the Sindh Province cancelled leave for medical personnel and brought in additional staff to cope with the deluge of patients, which is expected to increase as devout observers of the Holy Ramadan fast succumb to fatigue and hunger.

The monsoon rains are still some days away, and until they arrive there is no telling how many more people will be moved from the streets into graves.

Interestingly, while other parts of the province have recorded higher temperatures, the deaths have occurred largely in Karachi due to urban congestion and overcrowding, experts say, with the majority of deaths reported in poor localities like Lyari, Malir and Korangi.

The end may be in sight for now, but as climate change becomes more extreme, incidents like these are only going to increase in magnitude and frequency, according to climatologists like Dr. Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Pakistan’s Streets Kids Drop the Begging Bowl, Opt for Pencils Instead Thu, 21 May 2015 15:45:53 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim In Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of school-aged children live and work on the streets, earning a few rupees each day to help support their destitute families. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

In Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of school-aged children live and work on the streets, earning a few rupees each day to help support their destitute families. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, May 21 2015 (IPS)

Khalil Ahmed’s life story sounds like it could have come straight out of the plot of a Bollywood flick, but it didn’t. And that makes it all the more inspiring.

Residents of the sleepy town of Gambat, 500 km from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, where Ahmed was an all too familiar face, may not recognise the 12-year-old today.

“I didn’t like what I was doing. I didn’t want to be seen as a beggar. It hurt when people hurled abuses, or said nasty things.” -- Khalil Ahmed, a Pakistani street kid turned star student
Wearing a clean, pressed uniform and polished shoes, his hair oiled and neatly combed, and his fingernails immaculately trimmed, he is a far cry from the scrawny, dirty, bedraggled young boy of eight who, just four years ago, could be seen clutching his grandmother’s hand, pleading for alms from passersby.

Sometimes he would even beg outside the Behram Rustomji Campus – the school where he is now enrolled as a pupil.

Currently in the fourth grade, his teachers say he is one of the brightest kids in his class of 20 students, 13 of whom are girls.

Located in Pipri village, where over 95 percent of the roughly 1,000 households earn their living by begging on the streets, this humble institution has given Ahmed a rare chance to receive an education, in a country where 42 percent of the population aged 10 years and older is illiterate.

In this remote village, 45 km away from Sukkur city, the third largest in the Sindh Province, Ahmed and scores of other children like him are moving gradually away from the begging bowl and closer to pencils and schoolbooks, implements far more suited to young children with any hope of a decent future.

Rampant illiteracy

Civil Society Cannot Substitute State Action

With a recent Oxfam study revealing that 82 percent of the richest children in Pakistan attend school while 50 percent of the poorest do not, it is plain that a kind of ‘educational apartheid’ exists in this South Asian country.

Indeed, Pakistan’s slow progress towards the U.N.’s Education for All (EFA) initiative has skewed figures for the entire region: a 2015 study by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that over 40 percent of all out-of-school adolescents globally live in South Asia, with Pakistan alone accounting for one-half of that figure.

While lauding the efforts of independent civil society groups to change this terrible reality, experts here nevertheless insist that nothing short of massive government intervention can turn the tide.

According to Mosharraf Zaidi, who heads Alif Ailaan, a campaign that strives to put education at the forefront of public discourse in Pakistan, despite “heroic efforts that consistently produce remarkable stories […], the sum is not equaling or exceeding the parts.”

“The state keeps failing children,” he told IPS, “and keeps failing those making an effort for the children.” Until the government fulfils its duty of providing an enabling environment, “even the brightest lights will not shine to their full potential.”

To his mind the government’s entire schooling system needs to be overhauled.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent educationist, goes a step further. While agreeing that those who complete 10th grade have a far higher chance of succeeding in life than those without basic literacy, he believes this is “only one step towards closing the enormous gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.”

To him, securing a decent life often depends on factors “unconnected to learning and competence”, such as pre-existing family wealth and property, connections to powerful individuals or groups in society, ethnicity, sect, religion and gender.

This daunting catalogue in many ways represents a to-do list for the government, revealing the social, political and economic issues it must tackle in order to create a more equal Pakistan.
The school is run by a non-profit organisation called The Citizens Foundation (TCF), created in 1995 by a group of ordinary citizens who were appalled at the dismal state of Pakistan’s education system.

True to its pledge, TCF today runs 1,060 ‘purpose-built’ schools all across the country dedicated to serving the most marginalised communities and to removing class barriers that hinder opportunities for the poor, who comprise 22 percent of this country’s population of 180 million people.

Prior to enrolling at the Behram Rustomji Campus, Ahmed was both the product and the image of the vast inequalities that plague Pakistani society, hindering its efforts to reach the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), whose deadline expires later this year.

Poverty and illiteracy are among the most severe challenges to Pakistan’s development, and although some progress has been made to level the playing field and give all citizens a fighting chance, huge gaps still need to be closed.

For instance, according to the Pakistan Education for All 2015 Review Report, published in collaboration with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), an estimated 6.7 million children are currently out of school, the majority (62 percent) of whom are girls.

Of the roughly 21.4 million primary-school-aged children currently enrolled in schools, only 66 percent will survive until the fifth grade, the UNESCO report predicts, while 33.2 percent will drop out before completing the primary level.

The situation is worse for street children, who in order to help their destitute families make ends meet, are forced to wander for hours eliciting spare change.

The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) believes there are about 1.5 million children living and working on Pakistan’s streets.

Few will ever see the inside of a school, or find decent work. Most are simply condemned to a life of poverty among the ranks of the 22 million people here who earn less than 1.25 dollars a day, according to the World Bank.

Experts are agreed that absent a decent education, children born to low-income families are far less likely to climb the socio-economic ladder.

Tackling inequality in the classroom

Luckily, TCF schools are helping to turn this tide by offering a “pay as you can” option for families who cannot afford school fees.

“Our minimum fee is ten rupees (about 0.09 dollars) per month, and the rationale for this is that people value a service that has some monetary cost attached to it,” Ayesha Khatib, content manager at TCF’s marketing department, explained to IPS, adding that the average monthly expense borne by a family amounts to no more than 30 rupees (0.29 dollars).

While this amount is not negligible to those living on the brink of starvation, to kids like Ahmed it is a small price to pay for the world of opportunity it allows.

“I didn’t like what I was doing,” he confessed to IPS. “I didn’t want to be seen as a beggar. It hurt when people hurled abuses, or said nasty things.”

With Ahmed now spending most of his time studying, his mother has joined his father on the streets to make up for lost income. Between them they earn a few dollars a day, money that generally goes immediately on buying food for the family.

And they are not alone in their woes.

Rabail Abbas Phulpoto, the school’s 25-year-old principal, told IPS that 85 percent of her students come from families who beg for a living and were thus reluctant to lose their breadwinners to the blackboard.

“I started engaging with the community about three years ago,” Phulpoto explained. “There was resistance at first but after eight months of persistent dialogue, I found [parents] relenting. A few sent their boys, but not their girls, and I found out that even those kids were continuing to beg after school.”

Millions of school-aged children in Pakistan drop out before completing primary education. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Millions of school-aged children in Pakistan drop out before completing primary education. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Today, 235 of the 350 students in the school are former street children. “The importance of education has finally sunk in,” she said, “and each [child’s] story is more inspiring than the last.”

None of them has reverted back to begging. Those who are required to contribute to the family kitty do odd jobs like working at corner stores for a few hours after school, the principal said.

Ahmed, for instance, worked for a mobile phone company for a while. Now he has learnt how to fix phones, and wants to use his education to become a computer engineer when he grows up.

Perhaps most importantly, the social barriers between the well-off students and their less fortunate peers are slowly breaking down. Whereas once the more privileged kids had avoided even sitting next to children from beggar families, now there is more fluidity, and more understanding, Phulpoto said.

Baela Raza Jamil, director of programmes at the Centre for Education and Consciousness (Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, or ITA) and coordinator of the South Asia Forum For Education Development (SAFED), referred to this initiative as transformative, both for the children and their families.

“I am sure each day they bring home newfangled ideas […],” she told IPS. “They are learning to do everyday mathematics, so they can help parents keep daily accounts.”

She hopes eventually discussions on earning options beyond beggary will ensue.

For children like Ahmed, that change has already come.

“I wish I’d grow up fast,” he told IPS, “so that my parents don’t have to work at all.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Women Turn Drought into a Lesson on Sustainability Tue, 17 Mar 2015 19:35:16 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Women in Pakistan fare worse than all their neighbours in terms of resilience to climate change. Credit: Ali Mansoor/IPS

Women in Pakistan fare worse than all their neighbours in terms of resilience to climate change. Credit: Ali Mansoor/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Mar 17 2015 (IPS)

When a group of women in the remote village of Sadhuraks in Pakistan’s Thar Desert, some 800 km from the port city of Karachi, were asked if they would want to be born a woman in their next life, the answer from each was a resounding ‘no’.

They have every reason to be unhappy with their gender, mostly because of the unequal division of labour between men and women in this vast and arid region that forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan.

"South Asian countries need to realise the tremendous capacity for leadership women have in planning for and responding to disasters." -- David Line, managing editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit
“A woman’s work is never done,” one woman says.

“She works in the fields as well as the home, fetches water, eats less,” adds another.

Others say women are compelled to perform manual labour even while pregnant, and some lament they cannot take care of themselves, with so many others to look after.

While this mantra rings true for millions of impoverished women around the world, it takes on a whole new meaning in Tharparkar, one of 23 districts that comprise Pakistan’s Sindh Province, which has been ranked by the World Food Programme (WFP) as the most food insecure region of the country.

But a scheme to include women in adaptation and mitigation efforts is gaining ground in this drought-struck region, where the simple act of moving from one day to the next has become a life-and-death struggle for many.

Over 500 infant deaths were reported last year, the third consecutive drought year for the region. Malnutrition and hunger are rampant, while thousands of families cannot find water.

In its 2013 report, the State of Food Security, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) listed Tharparkar as the region with the country’s highest caloric deficit, a by-product of what it labels a “chronic” food crisis, prompted by climate change.

Of the 1.5 million people spread out over 2,300 villages in an area spanning 22,000 square km, the women are bearing the brunt of this slow and recurring disaster.

Tanveer Arif who heads the NGO Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE) tells IPS that women not only have to look after the children, they are also forced to fill a labour gap caused by an exodus of men migrating to urban areas in search of jobs.

With their husbands gone, women must also tend to the livestock, fetch water from distant sources when their household wells run dry, care for the elderly, and keep up the tradition of subsistence farming – a near impossible task in a drought-prone region that is primed to become hotter and drier by 2030, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

The promise of harder times ahead has been a wakeup call for local communities and policymakers alike that building resilience is the only defense against a rising death toll.

Women here are painfully aware that they need to learn how to store surplus food, identify drought-resilient crops and wean themselves off agriculture as a sole means of survival, thinking that has been borne out in recent studies on the region.

Conservation brings empowerment

The answer presented itself in the form of a small, thorny tree called the mukul myrrh, which produces a gum resin that is widely used for a range of cosmetic and medicinal purposes, known here as guggal.

Until recently, the plant was close to extinction, and sparked conservation efforts to keep the species alive in the face of ruthless extraction – 40 kg of the gum resin fetches anything from 196 to 392 dollars.

Today, those very efforts are doubling up as adaptation and resiliency strategies among the women of Tharparkar.

Women often bare the brunt of natural disasters since they are responsible for the upkeep of the household and the wellbeing of their families. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Women often bare the brunt of natural disasters since they are responsible for the upkeep of the household and the wellbeing of their families. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

It began in 2013, when SCOPE launched a project with support from the Scottish government to involve women in conservation. Today, some 2,000 women across Tharparkar are growing guggal gum trees; it has brought nutrition, a better income and food security to all their families.

“For the first time in so many years, we did not migrate […] in search of a livelihood,” 35-year-old Resham Wirdho, a mother of seven, tells IPS over the phone from Sadhuraks.

She says her family gets 100 rupees (about 0.98 dollars) from the NGO for every plant she raises successfully. With 500 plants on her one-acre plot of land, she makes about 49 dollars each month. Combining this with her husband’s earnings of about 68 dollars a month as a farmhand, they no longer have to worry where the next meal will come from.

They used some of their excess income to plant crops in their backyard. “This year for the first time, instead of feeding my children dried vegetables, I fed them fresh ones,” she says enthusiastically.

For the past year, they have not had to buy groceries on credit from the village store. They are also able to send the eldest of their seven kids to college.

Women in Pakistan’s drought-struck Tharparkar District are shouldering the burden of a long dry spell that is wreaking havoc across the desert region. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Women in Pakistan’s drought-struck Tharparkar District are shouldering the burden of a long dry spell that is wreaking havoc across the desert region. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Wirdho says it is a gift that keeps on giving. In the next three years, each of the trees they planted will fetch at least five dollars, amounting to net earnings of 2,450 dollars – a princely sum for families in this area who typically earn between 78 and 98 dollars monthly.

And finally, the balance of power between Wirdho and her husband is shifting. “He is more respectful and not only helps me water and take care of the plants, but with the housework as well – something he never did before,” she confesses.

Lessons from Pakistan for South Asia

The success of a single scheme in a Pakistani desert holds seeds of knowledge for the entire region, where experts have long been pushing for a gendered approach to sustainable development.

With 2015 poised to be a watershed year – including several scheduled international conferences on climate change, many believe the time is ripe to reduce women’s vulnerability by including them in planning and policies.

Such a move is badly needed in South Asia, home to 1.6 billion people, where women comprise the majority of the roughly 660 million people living on less than 1.25 dollars a day. They also account for 50 percent of the agricultural labour force, thus are susceptible to changes in climate and ecosystems.

The region is highly prone to natural disasters, and with the population projected to hit 2.2 billion by 2050 experts fear the outcome of even minor natural disasters on the most vulnerable sectors of society, such as the women.

A recent report by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit (EIU), ‘The South Asia Women’s Resilience Index’, concluded, “South Asian countries largely fail to consider the rights of women to be included in their disaster risk reduction (DRR) and resilience-building efforts.”

Using Japan – with a per capita relief budget 200 times that of India, Pakistan or Bangladesh – as a benchmark, the index measured women’s vulnerability to natural calamities, economic shifts and conflict.

A bold indictment of women’s voices going unheard, the report put Pakistan last on the index, lower than Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

On all four categories considered by the EIU in measuring women’s resiliency – economic, infrastructural, institutional and social – Pakistan scored near the bottom. On indicators such as relief budgets and women’s access to employment and finance, it lagged behind all its neighbours.

According to David Line, managing editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit, “South Asian countries need to realise the tremendous capacity for leadership women have in planning for and responding to disasters. They are at the ‘front line’ and have intimate knowledge of their communities. Wider recognition of this could greatly reduce disaster risk and improve the resilience of these communities.”

And if further proof is needed, just talk to the women of Tharparkar.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Pakistan’s Domestic Workers Long For Low Pay and Overwork to Be a Thing of the Past Mon, 09 Feb 2015 12:12:17 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Aasia Riaz (24) is one of Pakistan’s 8.5 million domestic workers. She earns about 8,500 rupees (82 dollars) each month. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Aasia Riaz (24) is one of Pakistan’s 8.5 million domestic workers. She earns about 8,500 rupees (82 dollars) each month. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Feb 9 2015 (IPS)

Sumaira Salamat, a mother of three in her mid-40s, works every day from ten in the morning until half-past two in the afternoon. She travels between three homes, and in each one she dusts, sweeps, washes utensils, and does the laundry. For her efforts, she earns about 3,000 rupees (29 dollars) per month.

Based in the eastern city of Lahore, capital of the Punjab province, Salamat is one of Pakistan’s estimated 8.5 million domestic workers, who daily perform the hundreds of housekeeping tasks necessary to keep a home spick and span.

"We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work." -- Sumaira Salamat, a domestic worker in Lahore
Experts here say that very nearly every middle class family in Pakistan employs some form of domestic help, but while the workers are a mainstay in houses and apartments across the country, the terms of their labour are far from clear; few have fixed working hours, benefits, pensions and proper contracts. Abuse is a frequent occurrence, and the laws governing domestic work are murky.

But things are changing. The recent formation of Pakistan’s first domestic workers trade union, combined with the promise of various bills pending in parliament, have workers here daring to hope that their situation might improve very soon.

Rights violations

Speaking to IPS over the phone from Lahore, Salamat says she has been on a four-year quest to secure some basic rights for herself and her fellow workers.

“It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force,” she explains.

“We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work,” Salamat concluded.

Substandard working conditions are one of the primary grievances of employees in this sector. Many are lured into homes with the promise of a good life and a decent salary. What they find when they arrive is something altogether very different.

Take Sonam Iqbal, 22 and single, who has been a domestic worker since she was 15. “When we are interviewed, we are shown a rosy picture,” she claims, “but slowly and steadily the workload is increased and we cannot even protest.”

Long hours of work and low pay are not the only issues. Many female workers complain that they are always the ones held accountable for any loss of money or valuables in the home.

It is hard to state with any accuracy the number of domestic workers in the country. Labour Department Director Tahir Manzoor is not willing to give even a conservative estimate, explaining to IPS: “They [domestic workers] are largely invisible, isolated and scattered among thousands of homes and apartments.”

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics states that of the 74 percent of the labour force engaged in the informal sector, a majority is employed in domestic work; this includes men and children.

Still, experts are agreed that the bulk of the industry is fueled by a steady stream of mostly uneducated rural women who flock to urban centres in search of work.

Their hopes of securing a better future, however, are often dashed when they realize their earnings fall far short of even the minimum wage, which is fixed at 10,000 rupees (about 97 dollars) per month in provinces like the Sindh, home to over 30 million people.

Legal mechanisms

Last month, Pakistan’s minister for Inter Provincial Coordination introduced the Minimum Wages for Unskilled Workers (Amendment) Act 2015, which, if passed, will see wages of so-called unskilled workers increase from 97 to about 116 dollars per month in all the provinces.

But there is no guarantee that domestic workers will benefit from it, since there are no mechanisms with which to check implementation.

In fact, except for mention of domestic workers in two legislations, there is no specific law protecting their rights in Pakistan, says Zeenat Hisam, senior research associate at the Karachi-based NGO Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER).

The two pieces of legislation in question are the Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance 1965, which states that “employers of a domestic servant” shall be liable to provide medical treatment “at his own cost”; and the Minimum Wages Act of 1961, which covers those employed as domestic labourers.

Despite these provisions, “the government has never notified the minimum wages applicable to domestic workers under this law in the last 53 years,” Hisam told IPS.

Protecting women and children

In December 2014, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the very first Domestic Workers Trade Union. It has 235 members of which 225 are female domestic workers.

The Union was registered with the Registrar’s Trade Union in Lahore, under the provisions of the Punjab Industrial Relations Act, 2010, and was established under the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Gender Equality for Decent Employment project (GE4DE), funded by the Canadian government.

“The ILO is working with Pakistan to bring about changes in laws and policy in accordance with the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189),” said Razi Mujtaba Haider, a programme officer with the ILO.

Ratified by 17 countries, the convention guarantees fundamental rights to domestic workers, including the right to decent and secure work. With an estimated 52.6 million people employed as domestic workers globally in 2010, the convention governs a massive workforce spread far and wide across the globe.

In keeping with such international standards, Manzoor says the labour department is “working in several areas – building the capacity of the domestic workers so that they have stronger bargaining power; working out a contract form between the employee and employer; fixing per-hour salary to stop exploitation; [providing] benefits and social security and most importantly, restricting employment of children, specially girls aged 14 and under.”

While Pakistan defines a child as a “person below 14 years of age” it does not declare domestic work as hazardous.

Manzoor says the Punjab assembly is on the verge of enacting the Prohibition of the Employment of Children Act 2014, which he hopes will restrict the use of child labourers in domestic settings.

Quoting various media reports, Hamza Hasan, a manager of the research and communications section of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), says that between 2010 and 2013, a total of “51 cases of torture of child domestic workers were reported from different parts of Pakistan resulting in the deaths of 24 children”.

He added that in 2013 alone eight children working in homes died, likely from overwork or abuse.

Both industry experts and employees are waiting anxiously for the sweeping changes that will relegate such horror stories to a thing of the past. But until the necessary laws are passed and ratified, Pakistan’s domestic workers will continue to toil for long hours, and low pay.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Fighting Extremism with Schools, Not Guns Wed, 21 Jan 2015 17:23:15 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim The Pakistan Taliban has destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012. Credit: Kulsum Ebrahim/IPS

The Pakistan Taliban has destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012. Credit: Kulsum Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jan 21 2015 (IPS)

As a wave of outrage, crossing Pakistan’s national borders, continues a month after the Dec. 16 attack on a school in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, some citizens are turning away from collective expressions of anger, and beginning the hard work of building grassroots alternatives to terrorism and militancy.

While many millions of people are lashing out at the Taliban for going on a bloody rampage in a school in the province’s capital, Peshawar, killing 141 people including 132 uniformed children in what is being billed as the group’s single deadliest attack to date, The Citizens Foundation (TFC), a local non-profit, has reacted quite differently.

"With the formidable challenges facing the nation, we passionately believe that only education has the power to enlighten minds, instil citizenship and unleash the potential of every Pakistani." -- Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, CEO of The Citizens Foundation (TCF)
Rather than join the chorus calling for stiff penalties for the attackers, it busied itself with a pledge to build 141 Schools for Peace, one in the name of each person who lost their life on that terrible day.

“We dedicate this effort to the children of Pakistan, their right to education and their dreams of a peaceful future,” Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, CEO of TCF, said in an email launching the campaign.

“With the formidable challenges facing the nation, we passionately believe that only education has the power to enlighten minds, instil citizenship and unleash the potential of every Pakistani,” he added.

In their war against western, secular education, which the group has denounced as “un-Islamic”, the Pakistan Taliban have destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012, claimed responsibility for the near-fatal shooting of teenaged education advocate Malala Yousafzai and issued numerous edicts against the right of women and girls to receive proper schooling.

In their latest assault on education, nine militants went on an eight-hour-long killing spree, throwing hand grenades into the teeming school premises and firing indiscriminately at any moving target. They claim the attack was a response to the military operation aimed at rooting out the Taliban currently underway in North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

While armed groups and government forces answer violence with more of the same, the active citizens who comprise TCF want to shift focus away from bloodshed and onto longer-term solutions for the future of this deeply troubled country.

The charity, which began in 1995, has completed 1,000 school ‘units’, typically a primary or secondary institution capable of accommodating up to 180 pupils, all built from scratch in the most impoverished areas of some 100 towns and cities across Pakistan.

The 7,700 teachers employed by the NGO go through a rigorous training programme before placement, and the organisation maintains a strict 50:50 male-female ratio for the 145,000 students who are now benefitting from a free education, according to TCF Vice President Zia Akhter Abbas.

In a country where 25.02 million school-aged children – of which 13.7 million (55 percent) are girls – do not receive any form of education, experts say TCF’s initiative may well act as a game changer in the years to come, especially given that the government spends just 2.1 percent of its GDP on education.

“Our job is to ensure that wherever we have our schools, there are no out-of-school children, especially girls,” Abbas told IPS. “We believe the change in society will come automatically once these educated and enlightened children grow up into responsible adults.”

Of the 25.02 million school-aged children who are not receiving a proper education, 13.7 million, or 55 percent, are girls. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Of the 25.02 million school-aged children who are not receiving a proper education, 13.7 million, or 55 percent, are girls. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

He added that the schools are designed to “serve as a beacon of light restricting the advance of extremism in our society.”

The project has received widespread support from a broad spectrum of Pakistani society. Twenty-four-year-old Usman Riaz, a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston who recently donated the proceeds of his jam-packed concerts in Karachi to TCF’s efforts, says the Schools for Peace are a “wonderful way to honor the innocent victims”.

But it will take more than one-off charitable donations to make the scheme a reality. It costs about 15 million rupees (148,000 dollars) to build and equip each new school, so the total bill for all 141 institutions stands at some 21 million dollars.

With a track record of building 40-50 schools a year, however, the NGO is confident that it will honor its pledge within three years.

Combating extremism

Besides immortalizing the victims of the Taliban’s attack, experts here say that shifting the focus away from terrorism and onto education will help combat a growing pulse of religious extremism.

The prominent Pakistani educationist and rights activist A.H. Nayyar told IPS that it is crucial for the country to begin educating children who would otherwise be turned into “fodder for extremists”.

In fact, part of the government’s 20-point National Action Plan – agreed upon by all political parties dedicated to completely eradicating terrorism – includes plans to register and regulate all seminaries, known here as madrassas, in a bid to combat extremism at its root.

With thousands of such religious institutions springing up across the country to fill a void in the school systems, policy-makers are concerned about the indoctrination of children at a young age, with distorted interpretations of religious texts and the teaching of intolerance playing a major role in these schools.

Some sources say that between two and three million students are enrolled at the nearly 20,000 madrassas spread across Pakistan; others say this is a conservative estimate.

While there is some talk about bringing these institutions under the umbrella of the public school system, experts like Nayyar believe this will do little to combat the “forcible teaching of […] false and distorted history, excessive emphasis on Islamic teachings to the extent of including them in textbooks of all the subjects, explicit teaching of jihad and militancy, hate material against other nations, peoples of other faiths, etc, [and] excessive glorification of the military and wars.”

Nayyar and other independent scholars have been at the forefront of calling for an overhaul of the public school curriculum, which they believe is at odds with the goals of a modern, progressive nation.

But until policy-makers and politicians jump on the bandwagon, independent efforts like the work of TCF will lead the way.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Inside Pakistan’s Untapped Fishing Industry Tue, 04 Nov 2014 10:40:41 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, nearly 400 million gallons per day of untreated waste from Karachi goes into the sea, making a fisherman’s job an extremely dirty one. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, nearly 400 million gallons per day of untreated waste from Karachi goes into the sea, making a fisherman’s job an extremely dirty one. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Nov 4 2014 (IPS)

If you want to know what ‘sea traffic’ looks like, just go down to the Karachi Harbour. Built in 1959, the dockyard houses close to 2,000 big and small boats anchored in the grey sludge at the edge of Pakistan’s southern port city, which opens into the Arabian Sea.

Life on the jetty, an all-male domain, is anything but dull. The air is thick with the smell of fish. With anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 men working here on a given day, mornings are crowded and noisy with vendors auctioning and buyers inspecting the catch.

Loading and unloading of goods continues uninterrupted well into the afternoon; boats are being geared up for the voyage – rations are inspected, fuel, water and ice are stocked, last minute checks of the nets, the ropes and the engines are underway.

Fishermen operating off the Karachi Harbour in southern Pakistan can earn up to 15,000 rupees (about 145 dollars) per month, but their income is dependent on their catch. As a result, many fisher families live in poverty. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Fishermen operating off the Karachi Harbour in southern Pakistan can earn up to 15,000 rupees (about 145 dollars) per month, but their income is dependent on their catch. As a result, many fisher families live in poverty. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

At one end of the harbour, mammoth-sized wooden arks lie in various stages of completion. Close by, fishing nets are being newly woven or repaired. A medium-sized boat (45 to 55 feet in length) carries anywhere from 20 to 25 fisherman; they go deep into the sea for a maximum of a month.

The income fluctuates – if the catch is good each fisherman can earn as much as 15,000 rupees (about 145 dollars) that month, but there is no fixed salary. These men only get a percentage based on their haul. There is a ban imposed by the government during the months of June and July because it is the best season for prawns, the mainstay of the fishery industry here in Pakistan.

Every day some 2,000 boats jostle for space in the murky waters of one of Pakistan’s oldest harbours. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Every day some 2,000 boats jostle for space in the murky waters of one of Pakistan’s oldest harbours. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers an area of about 240,000 sq km and the maritime zone of Pakistan, including the continental shelf, extends up to 350 nautical miles from the coastline.

Thus the country has the potential to become a major producer of seafood, not only for local consumption but for the global market as well. Currently, nearly 400,000 people are directly engaged in fishing in Pakistan and another 600,000 in the ancillary industries.

A fisherman walks in front of one of the many half-constructed wooden arks that lie strewn about the Karachi harbour. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

A fisherman walks in front of one of the many half-constructed wooden arks that lie strewn about the Karachi harbour. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

However, an industry that can earn valuable foreign exchange and create a huge job market contributes a dismal one percent to Pakistan’s GDP, with annual exports touching just 367 million dollars in 2013-2014, primarily to countries like China, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Korea.

The average annual catch is almost 600,000 metric tons of more than 200 commercially important fish and shellfish species, found in and around the Karachi Harbour.

Illegal nets made of fine mesh end up trapping small, commercially unviable fish in massive quantities. Between 70 and 100 trucks, each loaded with 10,000 kg of trash fish, leave Karachi’s harbour each day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Illegal nets made of fine mesh end up trapping small, commercially unviable fish in massive quantities. Between 70 and 100 trucks, each loaded with 10,000 kg of trash fish, leave Karachi’s harbour each day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

“This includes the catch from other harbours, even from Balochistan [located on the south-western coast], all of which comes here to be sold inland or exported,” says Sagheer Ahmed, spokesperson for the Karachi Fisheries Harbour Authority (KFHA).

One way to increase the role of fisheries in national GDP, says Muhammad Moazzam Khan, ex-director general of the Marine Fisheries Department, is to put a stop to over-exploitation of fish stocks.

The harbour is an all-male domain. Anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 men work here on any given day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The harbour is an all-male domain. Anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 men work here on any given day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

What was once an indigenous occupation, small fishermen say, has turned into a greedy enterprise, resulting in overharvesting of marine resources.

Kamal Shah, spokesperson for the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a non-governmental organisation working for the rights of the local fishing community, says, “The indigenous people know how to recharge the marine life; they respect nature and follow the principles of sustainable livelihood, which seems lost on those who want to get rich quick.”

Before heading out to sea, fishermen gather in groups to see to the final details of their voyage: stocking up on food, checking the engines and repairing their nets. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Before heading out to sea, fishermen gather in groups to see to the final details of their voyage: stocking up on food, checking the engines and repairing their nets. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Khan, currently a technical advisor to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, worries about extinction of several marine species. He lamented the depletion of shrimp, lobster, croaker, shark and stingrays due to over-exploitation.

“Recovery of these resources is very slow and even if these fisheries are closed down, it would still take decades to restore their stock,” he says.

Nearly 400,000 people are directly engaged in fishing in Pakistan and another 600,000 are involved in the ancillary industries according to the Karachi Fisheries Harbour Authority (KFHA). Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Nearly 400,000 people are directly engaged in fishing in Pakistan and another 600,000 are involved in the ancillary industries according to the Karachi Fisheries Harbour Authority (KFHA). Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Activists, like Shah, say a major problem is the use of illegal (fine mesh) nets that end up catching juvenile fish as opposed to the government-approved nets for deep sea and creek fishing.

These illegal nets literally sieve undersized fish that are economically not viable, but nevertheless important for keeping the marine ecosystem balanced.

Ahmed of the KFHA says Pakistan exported 50 million dollars worth of “trash fish” in the last financial year. “As many as 70 to 100 trucks each loaded with 10,000 kg of trash fish leave the KFHA every day,” he explains.

The WWF-Pakistan is worried about the extinction of several marine species. Experts are particularly concerned about the depletion of shrimp, lobster, croaker, shark and stingrays due to over-exploitation. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The WWF-Pakistan is worried about the extinction of several marine species. Experts are particularly concerned about the depletion of shrimp, lobster, croaker, shark and stingrays due to over-exploitation. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Shah also blames the “industrial waste from factories and organic waste from the cattle colony” that goes untreated into the sea. According to the WWF-Pakistan, nearly 400 million gallons per day of untreated waste from Karachi goes into the sea.

But there is some good news for Pakistan’s fishing industry.

After blocking fish exports for six years, last year the European Union (EU) de-listed two of the more than 50 Pakistani companies and this year it is hoped another five will get the green signal. “More than 20 percent of the fish export went to the EU,” according to KFHA’s Ahmed.

Male children are roped into their father's occupation very early in life, when they are taken onboard the ships as helpers. Few fisher families send their kids to school. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Male children are roped into their father’s occupation very early in life, when they are taken onboard the ships as helpers. Few fisher families send their kids to school. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

An ineffective cold chain and low standards in traceability (tracking the supplier, date and time of transactions) were identified as major issues.

“Boats did not meet the specifications. Often the wooden floor and the wooden containers where catch was stored did not meet the hygiene standards, machines used to haul the net often leaked oil on the floor and the fish hold was found to be rusty,” Ahmed says.

Today nearly 1,000 boats have been modified. Fiberglass cladding in the fish-holds and the increased use of plastic crates have replaced wooden containers. This has also helped maintain the temperature required to keep the catch fresh.

The fishermen perform multiple tasks on the boat. This man makes fresh rotis (flat bread) from whole-meal flour, which the men eat with the fish they catch.  Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The fishermen perform multiple tasks on the boat. This man makes fresh rotis (flat bread) from whole-meal flour, which the men eat with the fish they catch. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

In addition, processing and packaging factories have started tracking the catch to adhere to the EU’s condition of traceability of the catch.

While Pakistan is slowly reclaiming the EU market and has found its foothold in newer ones, it has a long way to go before establishing itself as a world-class fisheries hub.

Perhaps most importantly it will have to tackle increasing pollution that has decimated some of the most important fishing grounds along the Karachi coast. Similarly, it will have to combat the kind of environmental degradation caused by land reclamation and mangrove denudation, both of which reduce natural levels of productivity along the coast, especially in the Sindh province.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Karachi Residents Trapped Between Armed Assassins and Private Bodyguards Wed, 20 Aug 2014 17:49:33 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Some 300,000 private security guards are registered in Pakistan, with anywhere from 70,000 to 75,000 in the Sindh province alone. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Some 300,000 private security guards are registered in Pakistan, with anywhere from 70,000 to 75,000 in the Sindh province alone. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Aug 20 2014 (IPS)

With a rise in sectarian killings, extortion, drug peddling, kidnappings and land grabbing, Pakistan’s sprawling port city of Karachi, home to some 20 million people, has become a hotbed of crime.

Fearing that they may soon bear the brunt of this lawlessness, the city’s elite – often the target of kidnapping for ransom – has begun hiring personal bodyguards and moving through the streets in armoured or bombproof vehicles.

The result, experts say, is an increasingly dangerous city, where trigger-happy thugs operate with impunity, while an understaffed police force struggles to keep tabs on rampant crime.

A recent study carried out by the Sindh Province police indicates that the available strength of the police force in Karachi is just 26,847, of which 8,541 are deployed to protect individuals and sensitive installations like the port, airport and oil terminal, among others.

Some 3,102 policemen are assigned to investigation. Only 14,433 policemen, working on back-to-back shifts of 12 hours each, are responsible for maintaining law and order, and protecting the lives and properties of ordinary Karachi residents.

That works out to just one policeman per 1,524 people in a city that clocked 40,848 crimes (with 2,700 people killed) in 2013, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world.

“There is blatant misuse of police in Karachi because of the persistent VIP culture that keeps officers from working in their respective police stations,” said Jameel Yusuf, former chief of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), an organisation working closely with Karachi’s police force and the provincial government.

A dearth of state security coupled with a burgeoning demand for protection over the last two decades has created a huge market for private security companies.

Colonel Nisar Sarwar, former chairman of the All Pakistan Security Agencies Association (APSAA), told IPS there are currently approximately 300,000 registered private security guards in Pakistan, with anywhere from 70,000 to 75,000 in the Sindh province alone. Some 50,000 of these guards are based in Karachi, capital of the Sindh.

Of the 1,500 security agencies in the country, 300 are members of APSAA, but Sarwar said there were countless other private groups, complete with sophisticated weapons, that provide security to individual families.

Affluent consumers are willing to pay handsomely for their own safety. Various Pakistan media have reported that armouring and bulletproofing a 4X4 vehicle costs between 30,000 and 45,000 dollars.

A new bulletproof armoured vehicle costs some 150,000-170,000 dollars on the international market according to Pakistan Today, a princely sum in a country where 60.19 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.

Despite a recent crackdown on crime – including the launch last September of a joint operation to cleanse the city of criminals, led by a paramilitary force called the Sindh Rangers – residents continue to be skeptical of official law enforcement.

CPLC Chief Ahmed Chinoy told IPS there has been a “50-percent reduction in various crimes” over the last year.

But Sarwar, who now heads Delta Security Management, one of the first security agencies set up back in 1988, said many wealthy families and individuals are continuously turning to private companies to protect them.

Former Inspector General of Police (IGP) for the Sindh province, Mushtaq Shah (2011-2012), echoed his claim, calling the demand “immense”.

“There are some 20,000 banks in the city, as well as consulates, businessmen, factories […],” he told IPS. “How can we protect these without private security?”

Politicisation of crime

Profiles of alleged criminals provided by the police portray a disturbing picture of the politicisation of crime in Karachi.

Former police chief Shahid Hayat Khan told IPS that criminality and politics go hand in hand here.

“They are complementing each other. Different political parties use criminals to [do their bidding]. There are a few who belong to different political parties, but most are from criminal gangs who have gotten into extortion, or the narco-business.

“Then there are a few who are from religious militant groups. And sometimes militant groups are inter-linked with the narco-business,” Khan added.

Private guards have been roped into this matrix, with security personnel themselves being implicated in several bank heists.

Others blame the escalation in crime on political interference in the police department.

“Give the police chief a three-year term [with] complete authority to steer his team, of course with due accountability, and see the difference,” Shah stated.

Frustrated with political involvement in the affairs of the police department, he himself remained in his post for just one year, from 2011 to 2012. He alleged that whichever government is in power appoints its preferred man as the “top cop” in order to sidestep certain legal regulations.

Given the dismal police-civilian ratio, CPLC’s former chief, Yusuf, believes that outsourcing certain tasks to private agencies will bring about a safer climate.

“The burden on the police will lessen if area-patrolling, protecting sensitive installations, and VIP duties can be carried out by private companies,” Yusuf said, adding that this would be cheaper than recruiting more personnel into the existing force.

It would also achieve the twin goal of providing employment and training for educated young people who have joined the ranks of Karachi’s jobless, he added.

Currently, he said, the average private security guard is “just a slightly more sophisticated ‘chowkidar’ (watchman) in uniform. He is undertrained, under-supervised and underpaid.”

According to APSAA’s Sarwar, guards are paid anywhere from 11,000 rupees (about 110 dollars, the minimum monthly wage as set by the government for a skilled worker) to 45,000 rupees (about 450 dollars) for armed guards. Two-thirds of their pay goes directly to the agency as a commission.

“They hardly receive any training,” Shah said, “and their weapons, if they are licensed to carry them, are outmoded. Some of them double up as peons, taking files from one desk to another and bringing meals to the office staff.”

APSAA runs two training institutes, one in Karachi and the other in the eastern city of Lahore in the Punjab province, which offer new recruits a three-day programme during which retired army personnel instruct them in basic self-defence and assembling of weapons.

Still, experts like Sarwar believe that trainings will be inadequate unless guards are equipped with the necessary weapons to deal with the militarism that grips Karachi’s streets.

“The agencies are not permitted to provide their guards with automatic weapons, and they are only allowed to fire in defence or if they are fired upon first,” he informed IPS.

“I am personally not in favour of weapons, but if a client requires an armed guard, the agencies should be permitted to equip some of their workforce with something more than single-shot pistols and shotguns,” he stressed. “Today, even robbers use Kalashnikovs and private security personnel cannot compete with their sophisticated weapons.”

According to, hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health, Pakistani civilians hold a combined total of 18 million guns, accounting for both licenced and illicit weapons.

For the last two years, APSAA has been demanding that the interior ministry be given license to carry weapons that will enable them to protect vulnerable institutions like banks.

While the debate rages on, ordinary Karachi residents must navigate a city that is armed to the teeth, and place their hopes on a struggling police force.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Pakistan: Where Mothers Are Also Children Fri, 11 Jul 2014 09:17:35 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Most South Asian nations struggle with the twin problems of early marriage and teenage pregnancy, making it crucial to tackle both simultaneously, experts say. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Most South Asian nations struggle with the twin problems of early marriage and teenage pregnancy, making it crucial to tackle both simultaneously, experts say. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Jul 11 2014 (IPS)

If 22-year-old Rashda Naureen could go back six years in time, she would never have agreed to get married at the tender age of 16.

“Looking back, I know I was not ready for marriage,” she told IPS. “How could I have been, being merely a child myself?”

With only a third-grade education, Naureen became a mother at 17 and got a divorce soon after she delivered.

According to Naureen’s mother, Perween Bibi, who works for a small daily wage as a cleaning woman in Pakistan, “I have two more daughters [in addition to two sons] and we gave Rashda away in order to have one less responsibility on our hands.”

Nearly 7.3 million teenage girls become pregnant every year -- of these, two million are aged 14 or younger.
But the opposite turned out to be true. Today Bibi and her husband, who is a private chauffeur, must now find a way to provide for their grandson in a family of seven struggling to survive.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the story is that Naureen’s pregnancy could easily have been avoided.

“Before marriage my best friend urged me to take contraceptive pills, but I refused to listen to her,” Naureen confessed.

“Even my husband, who had been forced to marry me by his parents, said we should wait, but I didn’t pay any heed; I thought having a child immediately would cement our relationship, and my husband would begin to love me,” she said forlornly.

Dr. Tauseef Ahmed, Pakistan country director of Pathfinder International, a non-profit organisation working to improve adolescent and youth access to sexual and reproductive health services in more than 30 countries, says that early pregnancy is not uncommon among teenage brides.

In fact, having a baby is a way of proving one’s fertility, and the values of adolescent pregnancy are “protected by women and girls themselves,” he told IPS.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), nearly 7.3 million teenage girls become pregnant every year — of these, two million are aged 14 or younger. Meanwhile, an estimated 70,000 adolescents in developing countries die each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 percent more likely among infants of adolescent mothers than among mothers aged 20 to 29.

Infants who survive are more likely to have a low birth weight and be premature than those born to women in their 20s.

The problem is particularly pronounced in Pakistan, a country of 180 million people where 35 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 49 years were wed before the age of 18, according to the latest figures in the 2012-2013 Pakistan Demographic Health Survey.

Experts say one of the main reasons behind the widespread occurrence of chid marriages and early pregnancies is a lack of education.

Naureen agrees, saying her disrupted education stands out as a glaring “missing link” in her early development

Dr. Farid Midhet, who heads the USAID’s flagship Maternal and Child Health Integrated Programme (MCHIP) in Pakistan, says there is a strong link between teenage pregnancy and female illiteracy.

“Together these contribute to high infant and child mortality and morbidity, high fertility, illiteracy in general, and production of children who are a burden on society,” he told IPS.

He added that this exacerbates poverty, which in turn fuels a vicious cycle of militancy, crime and social unrest.

Pathfinder International’s Ahmed believes a strong conservative current in Pakistani society – where 97 percent of the population identifies as Muslim – also conspires against the girl child, making early marriage and adolescent pregnancy a foregone conclusion for thousands of girls.

“Early marriage and not getting permission to attend school are the two main indicators of conservative forces here,” he stressed, adding that the “fear of backlash from conservative forces” has resulted in a glaring lack of positive initiatives within the public sector to tackle the problem.

This, despite the fact that study after study has shown that countries that improve school enrollment rates for girls also see a decline in adolescent child-bearing.

Asked how to tackle the health crisis caused by teenage motherhood, Zeba Sathar, country director of the Population Council of Pakistan, answered immediately that she would first and foremost invest in girls’ education.

“Globally proven strategies include keeping adolescent girls in schools, using economic incentives and livelihood programmes, offering life skills, informing families and communities about the adverse effects of adolescent pregnancy, and mobilising them to support girls to grow and develop into women before becoming mothers,” Sathar told IPS.

A regional problem

The phenomenon is not exclusive to Pakistan, with several other countries in the region experiencing equally challenging situations.

Most South Asian nations, like Pakistan, struggle with the twin problems of early marriage and teenage pregnancy, making it crucial to tackle both simultaneously, experts say.

But this is easier said than done, as laws surrounding the ‘official’ marriage age are difficult to enforce and complicated by traditional societal values.

According to a 2013 report by the UNFPA entitled ‘Motherhood in Childhood’, India and Bangladesh remain among the countries where a girl is most likely to be married before she is 18.

Pakistan and Sri Lanka, on the other hand, show much lower rates of pregnancies among women aged 15 to 19.

The U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA)’s World Population Prospects report states that the adolescent fertility rate among women in the 15-19 age group is 87 per 1,000 women in Afghanistan, 81 in Bangladesh, 74 in Nepal, 33 in India, 27 in Pakistan, and just 17 in Sri Lanka.

India’s eastern state of Bihar had the worst score card for child marriage. Referring to a survey of more than 600,000 households conducted for India’s health ministry between 2007 and 2008, Sathar said nearly 70 percent of women in their early twenties reported having been married by the age of 18.

Bangladesh does not fare any better. One in 10 teens has had a child by the age of 15, while one in three girls gets married by the age of 15.

But numbers, according to Ahmed, do not tell the whole story.

“Early childhood marriages and fertility rates may be four times higher in Bangladesh than in Pakistan, but the former experiences higher aspirations [among women] for better education and gainful employment than Pakistan,” he stated.

Bangladesh’s Population Reference Bureau’s 2013 Data Sheet on Youth states the female labour force participation in Bangladesh is 51 percent, compared to just 20 percent in Pakistan.

Additionally, the percentage of women in secondary education in Bangladesh was 55, while in Pakistan it was just 29.

For women like Naureen, staying in school could have spared her a lifetime of pain.

“I would not have been married and become a mother at such a young age; I would have had time to think about what I was getting myself into… I would have been just a little bit wiser,” she said.

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Ethnic Cleansing Goes Unpunished in the ‘Land of the Pure’ Mon, 30 Jun 2014 19:51:55 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Protest mourning of the Hazara Shias killed in Quetta. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

Protest mourning of the Hazara Shias killed in Quetta. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jun 30 2014 (IPS)

It has been two years since he survived an attack on his life, but 24-year-old Quwat Haider, a member of Pakistan’s minority Hazara community, still finds it hard to narrate the events that scarred him for life.

“I wouldn’t even want my worst enemies to witness what I did on that summer day of Jun. 18, 2012,” the young man, hailing from the southwest Balochistan province, tells IPS.

Like any regular day, he, his sister and their three cousins boarded a bus at 7:45 am bound for the Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences (BUITMS) in the capital, Quetta.

“There is no travel route, no shopping trip, no school run, no work commute that is safe for the Hazara." -- Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch
Just before they disembarked, a car filled with explosives rammed into the bus.

“All I remember is hitting my head hard on the floor of the bus before I passed out. When I came round, I heard screaming all around me. People were getting out of the bus, as they feared it might explode. I got out too, still numb,” Haider recalled with difficulty.

Miraculously, he sustained no serious injuries, and was able to rush his sisters and cousins to the hospital.

Others were not so lucky. Of the roughly 70 Hazara students on the bus that morning, four died on the spot, while dozens of others were seriously wounded in the blast.

It was not the first time a group of Hazaras had been attacked simply for their ethnicity, and experts fear it will not be the last.

A report released Monday by Human Rights Watch, entitled ‘We Are the Walking Dead: Killings of Shi’a Hazaras in Balochistan, Pakistan’, documents systematic attacks on the community between 2010 and early 2014.

It has recorded at least 450 killings of the Shiite minority in 2012, and 400 in 2013. In 2012 approximately one-quarter of the victims, and in 2013, nearly half of all victims, belonged to the Hazara community in Balochistan.

With their distinctive Mongolian features, Hazaras are a Persian-speaking people who originally migrated from central Afghanistan over a century ago. Today there are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Hazaras in the country, the vast majority of who reside in Quetta.

According to Minority Support Pakistan, a non-partisan advocacy organisation, the community comprises approximately 20 percent of the country’s 180-million strong, Sunni-majority population.

The systematic targeting of Hazaras began around 2008, and each account is increasingly chilling – pilgrims en route to Iran are dragged from buses and executed on the roadside, families perish in bomb blasts at busy marketplaces or during religious processions, others are attacked while commuting to work and school, and some are simply slaughtered while praying in mosques.

A funeral for victims of gunmen in the Hazara graveyard in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

A funeral for victims of gunmen in the Hazara graveyard in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned Sunni militant outfit that reportedly enjoys strong ties with the Al Qaeda and the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has proudly claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, declaring itself a sworn enemy of the Shi’a “infidels”.

In 2011, a letter circulated in Mariabad, a Hazara-dominated inner suburb in eastern Quetta, read: “Pakistan means land of the pure, and the Shi’as have no right to be here…Our mission [in Pakistan] is the abolition of this impure sect and people, the Shias and the Shia-Hazaras, from every city, every village, every nook and corner of Pakistan.”

In keeping with this deadly vow, the group has carried out endless bloody attacks, including two bombings in January and February last year that killed at least 180 people.

The first incident, on Jan. 10 – which consisted of two subsequent bomb blasts – wiped out 96 people at a snooker club, injuring an additional 150.

This led to countrywide sit-ins in solidarity with the families in Quetta who refused to bury the dead. Three days later the government was forced to suspend the provincial government and impose federal rule in Balochistan.

Official Indifference

Earlier this month, on Jun. 8, 30 Shias returning from a pilgrimage were killed in a coordinated suicide bombing in Taftan, a remote part of Balochistan province on the border with Iran.

Because it was “impossible to secure the 800 km-road from Quetta to Taftan,” according to Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the government imposed a blanket ban on road travel to Iran, urging pilgrims to “travel by air instead.”

HRCP’s Yusuf found the minister’s comment "insensitive", adding, “not everyone can afford air fares.”

The problem can only be solved, she said, by taking action against sectarian terrorists in Balochistan and elsewhere, "not restricting movement of those under threat."
Barely five weeks after the massacre, on Feb. 17, a car bomb went off in a crowded vegetable market in Quetta’s Hazara Town, this time killing 84 and injuring about 160 people.

Haider, who lives close to the site of the Jan. 10 attack, counts himself lucky to have survived.

“When I heard the blast, I decided to go and help the wounded, but my mother called just then asking to be picked up from somewhere, so I left home. Otherwise, I would have been dead too,” he added, referring to the scores of people who lost their lives in the second blast, while tending to the injured.

Haider later went to look for his cousins among the carnage. “I saw corpses, headless bodies, singed limbs and hands… it was horrible,” he said.

Rights advocates say that the government’s response to every killing is the same: officials make all the right statements, but fail to conduct any arrests or hold the perpetrators accountable.

Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) who participated in a fact-finding mission to Quetta in May 2012, is disappointed with the government’s lacklustre efforts.

“We…brought up the issue with the then governor and chief secretary [of the state] and both acknowledged the persecution; but they had no answers as to why action was not taken against LeJ, which in almost all cases owns up to the attacks,” she told IPS.

Meanwhile, the situation for Hazaras is getting worse.

According to Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “There is no travel route, no shopping trip, no school run, no work commute that is safe for the Hazara. The government’s failure to put an end to these attacks is as shocking as it is unacceptable.”

The HRCP estimates that 30,000 Hazaras have fled Pakistan in the last five years, resulting in a booming trafficking market in Quetta. Thousands of desperate Hazaras have paid agents huge sums of money to facilitate passage to Australia and Europe, using dangerous sea-routes that offer no guarantee of making it to the other side alive.

Once a serene and peaceful city, Quetta is now pockmarked with army cantonments and military checkpoints. Over 1,000 soldiers from the Balochistan Frontier Corps (a paramilitary force), organised into 27 platoons, patrol the streets alongside the police.

This degree of security makes the continued persecution of the Hazara community even more “appalling”, according to Ambreeen Agha, a research assistant with New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, since it is happening “right under the nose of the Pakistani army.”

For those like Haider, “home” has now become a violent and dangerous place. “No part of Pakistan is safe for me,” he said pessimistically. But unlike his brother, who left the country four years ago, he has no plans of fleeing. “It’s just me and my sister here; if I leave, who will take care of our parents?”


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Obstetric Fistula Haunts Pakistani Women Tue, 17 Jun 2014 19:04:28 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Naz Bibi is awaiting treatment for fistula at the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital in Pakistan. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Naz Bibi is awaiting treatment for fistula at the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital in Pakistan. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jun 17 2014 (IPS)

The word on the street was that if there were one place on earth that could treat Mohammad Lalu’s wife, it would be the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi.

The 50-year-old stone crusher hailing from the remote village of Dera Bugti in the southwest Balochistan province had spent 30 years searching for a facility that would treat his wife, Naz Bibi, who suffers from obstetric fistula.

Sitting upright on a plastic sheet draped over one of the hospital beds, Bibi told IPS, “It took us two days of non-stop travel to get here and we spent 12,000 rupees (roughly 120 dollars) on the bus fare alone.”

It is a princely sum for a family of extremely modest means, in a country where the average income is less than 1,200 dollars a year. But for Lalu and his wife, the expenditure will be worth it if it can cure Bibi of her terrible affliction.

“Obstructed labour is especially common among young, physically immature women giving birth for the first time.” – United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
While virtually unheard of in the developed world, obstetric fistula is still common in many Asian and African countries: the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that it affects nearly three million women annually.

While country-specific data is harder to find, local experts suggest that anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 women in Pakistan are suffering from fistula.

Caused by prolonged or stressful labour, the condition arises when the baby’s head puts undue pressure on the lining of the woman’s birth canal, eventually ripping through the wall of the rectum or bladder and resulting in urinary or faecal incontinence.

Medial professionals say young women, whose bodies have not yet matured enough to endure the birthing process, are most vulnerable, as well as those who lack adequate nutrition or live too far away from modern healthcare facilities.

Because fistula causes a woman to lose control over her bodily functions, there is a huge stigma around the condition. Those afflicted by it often smell bed, and are sequestered away from their communities and families, forced to suffer in silence.

This is particularly traumatic for young mothers, who end up spending the better parts of their lives having little to no contact with the outside world.

Lalu told IPS that Bibi’s trouble started soon after she delivered a stillborn baby boy when she was just a teenager during her first marriage.

“I am her second husband,” he said. “Her parents married her to me after her husband left her, but did not disclose she was suffering from this dreadful problem.”

Unlike many other husbands, Lalu did not turn away from his new wife; instead, he has gone to great lengths to find her the necessary treatment. This hasn’t been easy, since fistula can only be managed through reconstructive surgery, which is cost-prohibitive for thousands of women.

Koohi Goth is one of 12 centres set up under the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Fistula Project that offers the service for free.

Now in its eighth year, and assisted by the Pakistan National Forum on Women’s Health (PNFWH), it has trained 38 doctors to carry out the surgery. These numbers, experts say, pale in comparison to the scale of Pakistan’s maternal health crisis.

‘100 percent preventable’

According to the country’s latest Demographic and Health Survey, 276 women out of every 100,000 die during childbirth.

“All these deaths are 100 percent preventable if we can provide quality of care and stop child marriages,” Dr. Sajjad Ahmed, head of the Fistula Project in Pakistan, told IPS.

He believes that delaying the age at which a woman experiences her first pregnancy would be a huge step forward in preventing conditions like fistula.

According to the UNFPA, “For both physiological and social reasons, mothers aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die of childbirth than those in their 20s. Obstructed labour is especially common among young, physically immature women giving birth for the first time.”

But changing the mindset that sees nothing wrong with the idea of a child bride will not be easily accomplished, especially in rural Pakistan.

Dr. Suboohi Mehdi (Surgeon at Koohi Goth Hospital, Karachi) on Fistula Cases from IPS News on Vimeo.

Thirteen-year-old Shahbano, hailing from the village of Sanghar in Pakistan’s Sindh province, occupies the bed next to Bibi. She tells IPS she was married at 11 and developed fistula three weeks ago, during prolonged labour involving her first child.

Luckily, both Shahbano and her baby son survived the ordeal, but she must now hope that her surgery goes well, so she is not afflicted by incontinence for the rest of her life.

“In our culture, when a girl first begins to menstruate, her parents are obliged to marry her off,” Shahbano’s husband, Abid Hussain, told IPS.

Neither he nor his teenage wife had any idea that the Sindh provincial assembly passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act last month, prohibiting the marriage of children under 18 years of age. Violation of the bill could earn offenders a three-year prison term or a 450-dollar fine.

In 1929, the official marriage age stood at 14 years, and in 1965 the law changed, making it illegal to marry anyone under the age of 16. Today, Sindh is the only province to have recognised 18 as the bare minimum age for marriage – a decision that has elicited vehement opposition from religious groups.

Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, which acts as an unofficial parliamentary advisor, said in reference to the amendment: “Some people want to please the international community [by going] against Islamic teachings and practices.”

“Such proclamations act as a spanner in our fight against early marriage and early pregnancy,” Ahmed asserted.

He says if he could give girls like Shahbano one piece of advice it would be to educate their children, especially their daughters.

“It will take a generation to put things right, but education will automatically bring about a cultural change, which could delay marriages. I see that as the only way to eradicate this condition,” he stressed.

Currently, the country only has the capacity to handle 2,000 cases of fistula, but doctors end up treating just 500 to 600 women a year.

Ahmed says this is largely due to the fact that people do not know the condition is preventable or treatable, and so avoid seeking out medical assistance. Many women live in rural areas without access to televisions, radios or cell phones, making it hard to spread awareness.

To circumvent the problem, hospitals have mobilised ‘lady health workers’ – women who go door-to-door in remote areas delivering information on sexual reproductive health and rights.

“We have a huge brigade of almost 100,000 lady health workers,” Ahmed said. Although they cover just 60 percent of the country, they act as a bridge between rural populations and urban-based care providers.

Perhaps these sustained efforts will enable Pakistan to see the day when conditions like fistula are nothing but a distant memory.


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These ‘Ghost’ Schools Are Not for Children Wed, 06 Nov 2013 08:57:35 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Out of school children in Ibrahim Hyderi, a fishing community near Karachi. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS.

Out of school children in Ibrahim Hyderi, a fishing community near Karachi. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS.

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Nov 6 2013 (IPS)

Rahmatullah Balal has spent ten years counting the schools that aren’t. The particular kind of Pakistani schools that are called “ghost” schools.

These are schools on paper, but really are sometimes enclosures to keep animals. Or, spaces for the locally powerful.

Balal, 35, chairperson of the Sindh Rural Development Society, a network of 40 grassroots organisations, has been pursuing education officers mostly in and around Hala city in Sindh province in southeast Pakistan to show them the schools that don’t exist.“There are animals kept in schools, and the buildings have been turned into stables. This is what we are doing to our children when education is a constitutional right.”

The education department paid no attention to his complaints, and some three years ago, he decided to stand outside the homes of politicians wearing black arm bands with a group of friends, or go to events where the the politicians would be invited as guests. “They listened but did absolutely nothing, because there was no pressure from the parents,” he said.

Last year his group decided to use digital technology. “We got the community involved and whenever we heard of a ghost or non-functional school, hundreds of text messages would be sent from different numbers to the MP.”

This brought media attention, with local newspapers highlighting the issue almost daily. Still, nothing changed.

As a last resort, Balal decided in January this year to move an application in the Supreme Court asking the Chief Justice to take notice of the “pitiable condition” of education in Sindh, with particular reference to ghost and non-functional schools.

Through text messaging, he asked local community-based organisations and individuals to send in details of such schools. “Within ten days, we had made a list of 1,300 such schools all over Sindh.”

The Sindh High Court conducted a fresh survey and reported to the Supreme Court earlier this year that there were some 6,721 such schools owned by the government, and for which it even disburses funds.

“There are animals kept in schools, and the buildings have been turned into stables,” Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry observed on Feb. 11 this year while hearing a petition filed by Balal. “This is what we are doing to our children when education is a constitutional right.”

Balal is still awaiting a legal resolution. “I would like to see all those who have been sponging off the government to be held accountable,” he told IPS.

Sadiqa Salahuddin, head of the Indus Resource Centre, said she would prefer to call these “closed” schools. Some of the 130 schools run by the Indus Resource Centre in Khairpur, Sukkur, Dadu, Jamshoro and Karachi districts in Sindh province were once non-functional schools.

“Ghost schools, especially, are equated with corruption, particularly with teacher absenteeism, when that is not always the case,” she told IPS. “Some of the teachers of these very schools may still be teaching and drawing an honest paycheck, but posted by their supervisor elsewhere under pressure from a higher up.”

She admitted it could well be the case that teachers get themselves transferred to a more convenient area.

“Posting female teachers to far-flung village schools when there is no public transport is the first step to throw a spanner in the career of even the most dedicated and committed of teachers,” she told IPS. She blamed the centralised recruitment policy where government-employed teachers can be posted anywhere.

According to Transparency international’s Global Corruption Report on education presented on Oct. 1 in Pakistan, some teachers work in collusion with education administrators to “falsify reports on the functioning of schools” while actually working elsewhere.

The problem of teachers not showing up for work, or schools turning into cattle pens, lies with the government’s skewed education policy, said Salahuddin.

The government system of building schools on land donated by the community is one of the reasons, she said. “In rural Sindh, which I know best, land belongs to a handful of powerful people, and when they part with their land, there will always be strings attached, influence wielded and interference.”

As things stand today, Pakistan will not be able to meet its target on education for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Nor will it be able to achieve the goal of universal primary education as sought in the Dakar Declaration 2000, to which Pakistan is a signatory.

A 2010 study undertaken by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed that some 25 million children between the age of five and 16 were missing out on school. In India in contrast, there were an estimated eight million children between 6-14 out of school in 2009, a significant decline from 25 million in 2003.

The study conducted with support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics and the Lahore University of Management Sciences did not include the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan administered Kashmir.

Pakistan spends 1.9 percent of its GDP on education, compared to a global standard of four percent. In contrast, 54 percent of the budget goes to defence and servicing of debt to buys weapons.

However, a part of even this low budget remains underutilised. The four provinces of Pakistan spent 31.3 billion rupees (293 million dollars) on education in 2012-2013 – less than half the allocated budget, according to Alif Ailaan, an alliance of NGOs working to bring education to the forefront of public discourse.

The group is campaigning for both an increased budget and for better utilisation. “We need both because the scale of the solution has to match the scale of the problem,” Mosharraf Zaidi from Alif Ailaan told IPS.

Zaidi said construction of school buildings and the hiring of teachers have become tools of political patronage. And yet education is not politicised enough because politicians are not “expressing any outrage at the outcome of this education system.”

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U.S. Science Reporters Becoming an Endangered Species Tue, 15 Oct 2013 00:31:29 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Jeff Adam works crop fields near Batavia, Iowa. Scientists say climate change could mean farmers like Adam will face new insects and plentiful weeds. Credit: Mary Chind/IPS

Jeff Adam works crop fields near Batavia, Iowa. Scientists say climate change could mean farmers like Adam will face new insects and plentiful weeds. Credit: Mary Chind/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee, Oct 15 2013 (IPS)

The news for environmental journalism in the United States is grim and getting grimmer.

On Mar. 1, the New York Times announced it was discontinuing the Green Blog that tracked environmental and energy news. In January, the paper had dismantled its three-year-old environment pod."Without journalists to uncover stories and speak to authoritative sources, the public loses." -- FERN's Samuel Fromartz

This year, too, Johns Hopkins University retired its 30-year-old science writing programme, following in the footsteps of Columbia University which, in 2009, closed its earth and environmental science journalism programme because of a poor job market.

Like climate change, the demise of science reporting is a slowly unfolding tragedy, say many environmental journalists in the United States.

At a time when conversations should be revolving around climate change, energy, natural resources and sustainable development, space for environmental reporting and coverage in the United States seems to be shrinking.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the fifth in a series, says the evidence is now overwhelming that humans are the primary drivers of global warming.

“A potential knowledge gap arises as environmental journalism shrinks. The public learns less about environmental and related health issues, but at the same time may fall prey to unscientific claims that often hold sway on the Internet,” a worried Samuel Fromartz, the editor-in-chief of the non-profit Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), told IPS on the sidelines of the 23rd annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, held earlier this month in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Without journalists to uncover stories and speak to authoritative sources, the public loses,” he said.

Scott Dodd, editor of On of the Natural Resources Defence Council, and who considers climate change the “most urgent story of our times”, told IPS that environmental issues are “consistently under-covered”.

From 85 weekly science sections in newspapers in the U.S in 1989, there were just 19 left by 2012.

“Environment is maybe 25 percent of a reporter’s beat,” Dodd said. “They are asked to cover city hall, night cops, the planning commission, and squeeze in an environmental story here and there when there’s time.”

In addition, climate change and the associated energy issues “tend to be complex, unspool over longer time periods, and require a level of knowledge and expertise that the average general assignment reporter might not have,” he added, noted that he is one himself.

“A long-term story like climate change, where the news today isn’t all that different from the news last week or last year, it’s difficult without a deep knowledge of the subject to find a fresh angle and sell an editor on why it should be front page news,” Dodd said.

Founded in 1990 by a small group of “full time” reporters and editors, the SEJ’s membership speaks volumes of this decline. Today, with a current strength of 1,300 members, a vast majority are “freelance journalists”, not all by choice, conceded Beth Parke, SEJ’s executive director.

But to be fair, if space for pure environmental journalism has shrunk, a bit of “cross-fertilisation” with other beats is still taking place.

“Editors generally understand that they cannot cover health, food, real estate, transportation, politics, energy, consumer issues… without bringing environmental questions into the story in one way or the other,” Parke said.

Interestingly, this meltdown of environmental reporting in the U.S., observed Adam Vaughan, editor of the U.K. based Guardian’s environment site, is not mirrored on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Guardian, for example, still has four reporters, two editors, two sub-editors and a picture editor dedicated to the subject, and earlier this year the paper hired an Australian environment correspondent for the first time. The Times, said Vaughan, recently moved one of its best reporters, Ben Webster, back to the environment beat.

So what did environmental journalism in the U.S. lose its glory to?

According to Parke, “Scandals, celebrities, sports – almost everything but serious investigative journalism is favoured as opposed to explanatory and public service journalism.”

The commercial media, she said, are “under severe pressure” to cover issues that increases their sales, ratings, listenerships and online views.

But all is not lost. This shuttering has led to a new genre – a rise in nonprofit journalism.

“I have seen the rise of more specialist sites online, such as InsideClimate, which won a Pulitzer recently, and Climate Central,” said Vaughan.

“There’s been the rising phenomenon of philanthropic-funded environmental efforts [such as Carbon Brief, China Dialogue, and Energy Desk], as well as freely-distributed public interest reporting from veteran journalists under the banner of the Climate News Network which were doing some of the best reporting on climate change,” he said.

“Look at what is winning prizes,” Parke said. “It’s news of oil spills, ocean health, contaminated food and building products, climate change. We see a lot of great work taking place outside the traditional media structure.”

And yet this kind of reporting has some obvious pitfalls.

“I’d view [blogs and magazines by NGOs] as an extension of their communications and marketing work, not what I’d recognise as traditional, independent journalism. It’s writing with an agenda, however impartial it appears to be,” said Vaughan.

Dodd, on the other hand, is worried “fewer people are seeing the important stories that these new outlets are telling” because these tend to be smaller, niche operations, without the resources or audience reach that national newspapers and the nightly network news were once able to command.

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Little Girls Killed, Who Cares Mon, 07 Oct 2013 07:49:17 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Girls in Pakistan face neglect and violence. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Girls in Pakistan face neglect and violence. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Oct 7 2013 (IPS)

Twenty-eight-year-old Omar Zaib, a taxi driver in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, confessed in court last month to drowning his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter because he wanted a son. A few days later, the media reported that two newborn girls had been found abandoned at a railway station.

Before that, in August, the police arrested a man accused of burying his newborn daughter alive because she was physically deformed.

But things came to a head when news of the rape of a five-year-old in Lahore broke out last month. Pakistan’s civil society erupted in protest.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the police have already registered 113 cases of rape and 32 of gang-rape in Lahore alone in the first eight months of this year.

But the malaise can be found across Pakistan, in small towns and big cities including Faisalabad, Tandlianwala, Kasur, Toba Tek Singh in the Punjab province; Karachi, Chachro in Sindh; and Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

The spate of such incidents in recent months has left civil society alarmed. An incensed Pakistani public is demanding the enactment of long-pending child protection laws, such as the Child Protection (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill 2009, the National Commission on the Rights of the Child Bill 2009, the Charter of Child Rights Bill 2009, the Prohibition of Corporal Punishment, the Child Marriages Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2009 and National Immunisation Bill 2009.

In addition, they are urging the government to implement the maximum punishment of life-long imprisonment until death, without possibility of parole, remission or pardon for paedophilia, rape and gang-rape convicts.

Arshad Mahmood, director of advocacy and child rights governance with Save the Children, says what is needed is a complete child protection system which would include not just the political will for law-making, but also a proper budget for implementation of the laws as well as for running the whole paraphernalia of monitoring.

“I think the Indian rape case triggered these protests,” Ayesha Khan, a development researcher working on women’s issues at the Collective for Social Science Research in Karachi, tells IPS. She was referring to the brutal gang-rape of a paramedic in Indian capital New Delhi in December last year, which resulted in her death.

However, unlike the outrage the rape in Delhi triggered in neighbouring India, the anger in Pakistan remains restricted to hundreds of tweets and outpourings on social media sites.

“When will the social media activism transform into action?” asks Samar Minallah, a rights activist who was part of a recent protest in Islamabad and was dismayed by the lukewarm response.

According to Asha Bedar, a Karachi-based psychologist, “Violence against children, especially young girls, is nothing new, nor unique to Pakistan.”

There is no official database, but the non-governmental organisation Sahil puts the number of child sexual abuse cases at 3,861 in 2012, while Madadgaar Helpline’s national database recorded 5,659 cases of violence against children from January to October last year.

These numbers, however, remain only indicative, as most cases go unreported. More than the numbers, what Bedar finds alarming is the “noticeable increase” in severe forms of violence, with very young girls being abducted, raped and murdered routinely. But only the very severe cases manage to rouse society from its collective stupor, she laments.

“No wonder violence continues. We simply do not value our women enough,” she adds.

Aurat Foundation, an Islamabad-based women’s rights organisation, had in a report titled Beyond Denial reported 7,516 crimes against women in 2012. Released earlier this year, the report noted how crimes like murder, domestic violence and acid-throwing increased between 2010 and 2012. The total number of women who died through murder, honour killing and suicide, among other crimes, was 13,583 between 2008 and 2012.

“Give these tragedies any name, but the figures imply that 34 percent of the total number of women subjected to violence did not survive the assault,” Dr Rakhshinda Perveen, author of the report, tells IPS.

As with all cases of abuse, perpetrators target the most vulnerable members of society because it is with them that they can exert the most power and impose their will, whether physically or sexually, says Bedar. This tendency increases in times of stress, and young girls are frequently victims, Bedar adds.

Bedar’s views find endorsement in the findings of a recent United Nations multi-country study on men and violence in Asia and the Pacific, titled ‘Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It?’.

Published in the British Medical Journal and The Lancet early this month, it is based on interviews with 10,178 men aged between 18 and 49 years in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea. One in four men admitted to raping a woman believing in “sexual entitlement” or as a form of punishment because they were angry.

“They believed they had the right to have sex with the woman regardless of consent. The second most common motivation reported was to rape as a form of entertainment, either for fun or because they were bored,” notes Emma Fulu, one of the authors of the report.

Minallah, however, blames parents as well for these incidents. “Nothing, not even poverty, can justify the murder of a newborn girl.” She thinks parents who neglect their children need to be penalised too.

She notes how in the recent case of the rape of the five-year-old, her absence went unnoticed for hours whereas the search for the missing boy accompanying her had begun much earlier.

Simultaneously, there are efforts to persuade the government to change school syllabi to ensure a positive portrayal of women. The Pakistani parliament passed seven pro-women laws between 2004 and 2011. But the government has failed to provide a safer environment for Pakistani women.

“It really all depends on convictions,” says Minallah. “Unless the main culprit in a rape case is tried and punished, there is not much hope.” The lack of convictions and unaccountability convey the impression that such issues are ‘private matters’.

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Pakistani Gays Stifled in Closet Living Fri, 27 Sep 2013 07:33:57 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim A mural by Pakistani artist Asim Butt. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

A mural by Pakistani artist Asim Butt. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan , Sep 27 2013 (IPS)

It took fifty-something Sameer*, father of two, 25 years of marriage and deceit to eventually break free and come out of the closet three years back.

Living with Ahmed*, a budding actor half his age, he says it had come to a point when living a life of “lies and more lies” had become suffocating. Now, the Karachi businessman tells IPS, “It’s like a load off my back; I can finally be myself.”

It is difficult to pin down exact numbers, but Pakistan has a sizeable lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. One very well-guarded LGBT website boasts 25,000 profiles from all over Pakistan, with 8,500 from Karachi alone.

“These obviously include only the tech-savvy,” says Akbar*, a 36-year-old medical practitioner who is in a relationship with 31-year-old advertising professional Ali*.

“There must be a huge number who are either not computer literate or want to stay closeted,” he tells IPS.

Pakistan’s conservative Muslim society considers homosexuality a sin. Article 377 of the Pakistan Penal Code prescribes up to 10 years in jail and a fine for those caught engaging in what are referred to as acts “against the order of nature”. There have been no prosecutions so far, though.

The larger community is mainly tolerant of gay men as long as they and their lifestyle operate under the veneer of social conformity. “Many ministers indulge in homosexual acts,” says Ahmed. “I have myself been the recipient of their attentions!”

This is perhaps why the gay men IPS spoke to did not recount any incident of witnessing or experiencing homophobia. “As long as you stay in the closet, do not ask for your rights, you are safe,” says Akbar.

However, sometimes the pressure to be discreet gets too much and gay men feel increasingly constricted in terms of places to hang out at. As Sameer says, “We can’t even be seen together at a café; there are no public spaces where we can be ourselves.”

While there are some well-known gay hotspots in Karachi, like around the much-revered tomb of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and the gardens around Frere Hall, Akbar says the haunts keep changing.

The more affluent gay men travel abroad or organise private parties. Email and text messages have made life much easier. “It is now possible to get together at the click of a button,” says Akbar.

The homosexual relationship, though, is a complex one, and not necessarily high on fidelity. While Sameer and Ahmed profess to be in love with each other, neither sees it as a monogamous relationship. “Everyone in our community has sex with others,” says Sameer.

Akbar too confesses to the odd one-night stand despite being “in love with Ali.”

“At least we are not cheating on our partners as some straight men do,” says Akbar. “Almost every straight married man I know is having an extramarital affair. They have no qualms about being unfaithful given the opportunity and guarantee of not being found out.”

When IPS repeats this to a straight married banker who does not wish to be named, he says, “I am surprised these people, who complain of being suppressed by society, seem to be as judgmental about us as we are about them.”

Senior finance professional Ali Aamir, on the other hand, concedes there could be some truth in what they are saying. “Society and religion have given marriage a sacred hue, but behind the marital façade, all this could be happening,” he tells IPS.

Ahmed says he knows a number of people who maintain the façade of a married life and have a gay lover on the side. He himself is open to the idea of a heterosexual marriage.

“A vast majority of marriages are arranged, not built on love; I’d be up front about my status before marriage!” he says, disclosing that many of his women friends do not mind the idea of being married to a gay man.

“I know many gay men who treat their wives well, even perform well in bed,” Ahmed adds. “In fact, we are more attuned to women’s needs, and can therefore make better husbands.”

However, while Ahmed is open to having the best of both worlds, marriage was a prison for his partner Sameer.

It is easier having a homosexual relationship when you are young, says Sameer. “Going to an all-boys’ school, having male friends over or even spending the night never raises alarm bells,” he adds. “It’s only when you reach marriageable age that the pressure begins to build.”

“Even where families have a fair idea, they hitch you up thinking marriage will cure you of this passing phase,” says Akbar. It’s taken for granted a man will have a family, regardless of sexual orientation.

Akbar also feels frustrated that he has been with Ali for the last eight years, yet cannot tell people what his relationship with him is, even though both their families have accepted their sexual bent. “I’m sick of having to say he’s my cousin or my friend. I want to tell the world that we are a couple,” he says.

The implications get serious when it comes to getting insurance or medical coverage, as Akbar discovered when he went to buy a life insurance policy and was told he could not nominate Ali as a beneficiary. “It had to be a blood relative or a spouse.”

Nor can Ali avail himself of the benefits Akbar and his family are entitled to. “It can only be a wife, children or parents,” Akbar adds.

“Today gays in the West are asking for equal rights for same-sex couples; in Pakistan they have a long way to go before they can ask for that,” Jumana*, a development sector consultant, tells IPS.

“The fact that they are at least willing to talk publicly about the issues they face here is the first brave step,” she adds.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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Few Pakistanis Donate Organs Mon, 26 Aug 2013 07:11:56 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Sajja Bibi practically lives on the pavement across from the hospital so that she can have regular dialysis. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Sajja Bibi practically lives on the pavement across from the hospital so that she can have regular dialysis. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Aug 26 2013 (IPS)

Forty-year-old Sajja Bibi from Sukkur, 470 km from Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, has been camping on the pavement across from the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation for over two years now.

Every other day, she walks up to the 750-bed institute for dialysis, offered free of charge. A few hours later, she’s back on the pavement.

With her is a whole community, patients and families of patients with late-stage renal failure, undergoing regular dialysis and waiting endlessly for a compatible kidney donor.

The dialysis ward at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) is perhaps the busiest in the country. Widely recognised as a centre of excellence in urology and nephrology in South Asia, the institute provides 160,000 dialysis sessions every year, which according to SIUT’s head Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi, takes care of only 27 percent of the country’s needs.

And renal complications are only likely to grow, with the International Diabetes Federation estimating Pakistan to rank 10th by 2030 among countries with prevalence of diabetes. Diabetes mellitus is one of the leading causes of chronic kidney failure.

Yet, there are not enough organ donors in Pakistan. This, despite the country having passed the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Act in 2010 which allowed not just relatives but also a living unrelated donor to donate organs, though under very stringent conditions.

People are just scared of donating a part of their body, according to Sabiha Mohammad Saleh, 36, who has been coming to SIUT for dialysis since 1995. “They don’t even donate blood, what to talk of kidneys,” she tells IPS.

Offering a rough estimate, Rizvi says 50,000 people in Pakistan die of organ failure every year. Of these, he adds, 20,000 die of kidney failure, 15,000 of liver complications, 8,000 from heart failure and the rest due to failure of the lungs and pancreas.

But SIUT has performed only just over 4,000 kidney transplants since it started operations in 1971 as an eight-bed unit in Karachi’s government-run Civil Hospital, says Rizvi, who is also the president of the Transplant Society of Pakistan.

There have been only two deceased organ donations in the country since 2010, he says. Many young and educated people pledge their organs, but their relatives refuse to honour their wish at the last minute, he adds. Dismembering the body, they feel, is tantamount to desecrating it and, therefore, goes against the tenets of Islam.

Twenty-six-year-old Shamim Meerajan, who has been coming to SIUT for dialysis for the past five years, cannot understand why this should be so. “A corpse is anyway eaten up by creatures after it’s buried,” she tells IPS. It’s the spirit that matters and it cannot be dismembered, she adds.

Many Muslim countries have a strong deceased donor programme, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Religion is just a smokescreen people hide behind, says Rizvi. The real reasons lie elsewhere. “We had been involved in organ sale for almost 20 years, which had become a sort of culture here,” he tells IPS. “There was a powerful group which benefited from this malpractice. They had money as well as contacts among the higher-ups, who they obliged with illegal transplantations.”

Pakistan had, in fact, become the hub of transplant tourism in the mid-2000s, with recipients from Australia, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. constituting the bulk of the beneficiaries.

During this time, the country was hosting up to 1,500 transplant tourists every year, according to World Health Organisation estimates, second only to China. They would pay up to 40,000 dollars for a kidney, but only 1,000 to 2,000 dollars of this would reach the donor.

Given these firmly entrenched interests, it took Pakistan three years to enact the bill. Initially, there were objections that its provisions were contrary to the Islamic law of Sharia, but Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court, which has the power to examine and determine whether the laws of the country comply with Sharia, gave the bill its approval in 2007.

The Act now prescribes a punishment of up to ten years and a fine of up to one million Pakistani rupees (roughly 9,700 dollars) for those found to be involved in human organ trafficking.

Sindh also became the first of Pakistan’s four provinces to ratify the law in its assembly after the 18th amendment to the constitution in 2010 devolved the country’s health sector to the provinces.

It still hasn’t helped the cause of deceased organ donation. This is because, says Dr Farhat Moazam, head of the Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture at SIUT, “no concerted effort has really been made to reach out to people, and make them understand what the deceased organ donation programme is.”

Rizvi holds civil society, media and “all those who matter in society” responsible for failing to encourage people to come forward and pledge their organs. Leading by example, he and his entire team have pledged their organs after death.

Another reason for the negligible levels of organ transplants in Pakistan, Rizvi points out, is the limited number of high-quality intensive care units (ICUs) in government hospitals where organ harvesting can take place.

“Most ICUs of international standards,” he tells IPS, “are in private sector hospitals. And they will never help advance the deceased donor programme.”

They will, for example, not bother with counselling or persuading families to donate the organs of their deceased kin. “We have converted the medical profession into an industry; in an industry, you work for profit, not for altruistic reasons,” says Rizvi. The country therefore needs more ICUs and trained personnel in its government hospitals, he adds.

Only then can the deceased donor programme become a success. “Not only will it arrest the trafficking of organs,” says Rizvi, it will also open up a new era in the science of transplantation in the country where every organ could be transplanted. “A deceased man could become a source of life for at least 17 others.”

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GM Seeks New Pastures in Pakistan Fri, 23 Aug 2013 05:59:20 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan , Aug 23 2013 (IPS)

After a string of setbacks in India in recent years, the genetically modified seed industry is now targeting Pakistan as its next frontier, say activists.

“They want to recoup the market loss that they would suffer through the ban on GM food field trials in India,” Dr Azra Sayeed, an environmentalist and food security expert, told IPS. She termed it a “fresh onslaught of imperialist corporations” and their “unquenchable thirst for profits.”

Wheat in India. Credit: Kinshuk Sunil/CC BY-SA 2.0

Wheat in India. Credit: Kinshuk Sunil/CC BY-SA 2.0

On Jul. 23 a technical expert committee set up by India’s Supreme Court recommended an indefinite moratorium on field trials of genetically modified crops until the government tabled suitable mechanisms for regulation and safety.

A parliamentary standing committee on agriculture had also asked, in an August 2012 report, for a ban on GM food crops in the country, and in March 2012, five Indian states – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand and Karnataka – took a decision to prohibit environmental release of all GM seeds.

Sayeed, who represents Heading Roots for Equity, a Karachi-based non-governmental organisation that advocates the right to food for poor communities, is alarmed that three multinational companies – Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta – have recently approached Pakistan’s ministry of food security with a request to launch GM maize and cotton.

The Pakistan Environment Protection Agency has also been asked for an environmental impact assessment.

Sayeed said the U.S.-based agro-chemical giant Monsanto had long been trying to get approval for transgenic corn based on field tests carried out by the corporation itself.

Hailing the indefinite moratorium on GM foods and crops in India as “a very progressive pro-people position,” she said the reasons behind the moratorium were equally valid for Pakistan.

The alternative would “be a crushing blow not only in the erosion of indigenous food crops but would also have further devastating impacts on small and landless farmers,” Sayeed said.

A spate of farmer suicides across India, and especially in areas where GM cotton seeds were introduced over a decade ago, attracted attention to potential impact of GM crops on poor farmer’s incomes.

Prince Charles’s comment on a possible connection between farmers’ suicides and GM crops in an address to a Delhi conference in 2008 gave a fillip to activists campaigning against the Indian government’s caving in to the mainly U.S.-based GM food industry.

So why is GM such a dirty word and why does it leave such a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth?

Pervaiz Amir, an economist who is a member of the prime minister’s Commission of Climate Change, said that to many, GM meant “uncontrollable mutations that create monsters. It is seen as playing god by genetically modifying the makeup of a species or variety,” he told IPS.

But those advocating GM products say they can lead to higher gains in productivity. Yet there are other experts who argue that GM technology is not the only way to break the yield barrier and reach food security.

“Pakistan has the potential to double its present production of all crops just by higher input use and better water management, and by removing some institutional constraints,” Amir said. At the same time, he said, the role of markets is crucial in determining a country’s food security.

Pakistan, he said, produced not only for Pakistan but for the Middle East, Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. “We have the potential and even the science, but lack the management to produce what we can produce the best.”

Amir compared GM seeds to drone strikes. “Loss of control is loss of almost everything including sovereignty,” he said.

“It conflicts with the Punjab Tenancy Act of 1929 which does not allow non-agriculture interests to own agricultural land,” said Yusuf Agha, a Karachi-based activist who is preparing to file a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court challenging the land lease Corporate Farming Ordinance of 2000.

He said that if multinationals succeed in finding their way into Pakistan’s agriculture and lure farmers to buy GM seeds, farmers will be deprived of their natural seed bank which they have been cultivating over centuries.

In July this year, over 500 organic farmers in India’s Gujarat state announced that they would develop individual seed banks to resist the onslaught of genetically modified seeds.

“All GM seeds should be banned, and natural renewable resources belonging to all humanity must be left unpatentable and unmonopolised,” argued environmentalist Najma Sadeque, who has been studying agricultural trends in Pakistan for two decades.

Her book, The Great Agricultural Hoax, is a storehouse of information on the “poisonous consequences” of making crops and people dependent on GM.

However, Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, a UNESCO recognised scientist, argued in an interview with IPS that GM foods are not detrimental to health. “There is not a single incident worldwide to prove that; these are just fears.”

But he said Pakistan needs to develop GM crops through its own developed technologies. “Imported seeds can often contain death commands whereby you cannot produce more crops from the seeds that are produced by the first crops. This can make us perpetually dependent on others for our agriculture needs, and we can thus become susceptible to exploitation by foreign countries wishing us to toe their lines.”

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Despite Stiffer Penalties, Acid Attacks Continue Thu, 01 Aug 2013 20:28:01 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Ruqqaiya Perween at the Burns Centre in Karachi, after an acid attack that left scars on 22 percent of her face and upper body. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Ruqqaiya Perween at the Burns Centre in Karachi, after an acid attack that left scars on 22 percent of her face and upper body. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Aug 1 2013 (IPS)

Five months back, a scorched 26-year-old Ruqqaiya Perween was brought to the Civil Hospital’s Burns Centre in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi.

Scarred for life with burns on 22 percent of her face and upper body, the mother of four said her husband, Asghar Maulvi Bukhsh, flung acid on her while she was asleep with her children – and some even fell on them.

“This is what I looked like,” she said, pointing to a photo showing a smiling and healthy young woman. “I don’t think I will ever be the same. I pray to God to make me well enough to be able to take care of my children, otherwise I have no desire to live.”

“Since my marriage 12 years ago, I’ve never had a day’s peace,” she said, her voice thick with emotion, while a tear fell from her left eye, which is now blind. “Beating me up was a regular pastime of his,” she said. It was always because he needed the money she earned as domestic help, she added.

She said her husband had never worked since they got married. “He suspected I gave some of the money to my divorced mother, although what I earned was so meagre, I’d hardly be able to feed the children three square meals,” she said.

Despite stiffer sentences for offenders, ranging from 14 years to life imprisonment and a fine of one million rupees (10,000 dollars), since the Acid Crime Prevention Act was modified in 2011, campaigners say the number of women doused in acid has increased.

According to a report by the Aurat Foundation (AF), which works for the rights of women, the reported cases of violence against women went down overall by 12 percent in 2012. However, some forms of violence showed an increase. In particular, the staggering 89 percent rise in reported acid attacks, followed by domestic violence, which rose 62 percent, burning (33 percent) and murder (11 percent).

“It’s the easiest form of violence… you can get acid over the counter and there is a complete lack of fear of retribution,” Maliha Zia, manager of law and gender at AF, told IPS.

In the last couple of years, especially after a Pakistani film Saving Face won an Oscar in 2012, there has been increased conversation around this form of violence – which may actually have given some men the idea, Zia said.

While statistics are patchy as not all cases are reported and not all women make it to the hospital, the Islamabad-based Acid Survivors Foundation said that in the last seven months, over 65 cases had been reported from across Pakistan.

In 2012, the foundation, which provides legal and medical help, said it was able to collate reports of 111 acid attack cases. These are collected from the field, various NGOs, survivors and families, the police and government hospitals from around the country.

In addition, 70 percent of acid crime victims are women, and in 60 percent of cases the attacks occur during domestic disputes.

“Laws are there in Pakistan and they are very good,” Dabir-ur-Rehman, heading the Friends of Burns Centre, a patients’ welfare branch of the Burns Centre, told IPS. But he said that in the last 12 years, since the philanthropic venture began, he had “not seen a single person convicted or any [woman] getting justice.”

Valerie Khan of ASF, however, has seen the conviction rate tripling since 2012 after the amendments in the law. “But let’s face it,” she added. “From a six percent conviction rate for acid attacks we have reached 18 percent, which is an improvement. But it still means that more than 80 percent of the culprits are still escaping justice.”

What needs to be done, said Khan, is strengthening the law enforcement mechanism. The ASF believes that while the amendment in the law was a good first step, it was not enough. So the foundation is still campaigning for a more comprehensive acid and burn crime bill, which is yet to be passed.

“It includes, among other components, a monitoring mechanism to overview the enforcement of the laws related to acid and burn violence,” she said.

In addition, Zia said: “It is equally important for the media to not just report on the crime, but to follow it through and report on the convictions so that it can act as a deterrent for future criminal attempts.”

One reason for the low conviction rate, said Zohra Yusuf, chair of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, is that “investigation in most criminal cases, also in the cases of acid attacks, is extremely poor, so offenders are often acquitted.”

And victims are frequently silenced, she said.

Fakhra Younus, a survivor who made international news 13 years ago, never got justice, because her perpetrator, Bilal Khar, belonged to a powerful political family. Younus underwent more than three dozen surgeries before killing herself last year; Khar continues to enjoy virtual impunity.

“A lot of pressure is brought upon families to retract their complaints,” said Yusuf, adding that “In the case of Fakhra, the entire family backtracked and said they could not identify him in court.”

“Victims often fear reprisals from perpetrators,” Khan concurred. “In addition, they also find it difficult to access justice.”

But until a stricter law is put in place, Dr Shahid Hussain at Karachi’s Burns Centre offers a solution. “If the government would put a check on the sale of concentrated acid, it can go a long way in controlling these crimes,” he told IPS.

Every month, he said, he sees two to four women coming to the ward after they have been doused in acid.

Zia said, “There was a section in the amended bill which put a check on the buying and selling of acid, but it was scratched off, before its passage.”

Meanwhile, Perween’s husband, who is still at large, calls her up daily threatening to scorch her younger sister the same way, if she does not drop the charges against him.

“Come what may, I will not change what I said!” said a resolute Perween, refusing to back down.


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Pakistani Doctors Earn “Only Gratitude” for Treating Fistula Mon, 27 May 2013 04:00:43 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim About 99 percent of patients with obstetric fistula cannot afford to pay their doctors. Credit: Jugran Bahuguna/IPS

About 99 percent of patients with obstetric fistula cannot afford to pay their doctors. Credit: Jugran Bahuguna/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, May 27 2013 (IPS)

Sherhshah Syed is a highly qualified doctor and president of the prestigious Pakistan National Forum on Women’s Health (PNFWH) but his income does not match his qualifications.

He often spends long hours treating women with obstetric fistula, a severe reproductive health condition arising during childbirth that primarily affects women and girls who have no access to even the most basic medical care.

But since fistula is considered to be “the poor woman’s” disease, few of his patients can afford to pay him for his labour.

Dr. Sajjid Ahmed, who heads a PNFWH fistula project, tells IPS with a smile, “More than 99.9 percent of (our) patients are so poor, all they can offer us in exchange for giving them a new life is gratitude and an embroidered handkerchief.”

Labelled an “entirely preventable condition” by the international medical community, fistula develops during prolonged labour, “when the baby’s head puts pressure on the lining of the birth canal and eventually (rips) through the wall of the rectum and bladder, resulting in urinary or faecal incontinence,” Syed told IPS.

Fistula also causes stillbirths, kidney failure and a perpetual faecal odour emanating from the woman’s body.

The condition is rarely found in the developed world but is common in many Asian and African countries, affecting an estimated three million women, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The fact that there are no country-specific statistics available for Pakistan is indicative of the indifference and stigma that surrounds the ailment.

Syed made a “conservative” guess that anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000 women in Pakistan are suffering from the condition, which can only be treated through reconstructive surgery.

“While we are able to (treat) 1,000 women each year, there are many more who suffer silently,” he said, attributing this silence to a sense of shame, a culture that does not allow women to make decisions about their own bodies and a lack of awareness among health practitioners.

Some experts blame this on flaws in medical colleges’ curricula. Dr. Qazi M. Wasiq, general secretary of the Sindh chapter of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), says colleges are “out of touch” with the needs of the country and the community.

“We train our young doctors to serve in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and the Middle East, where fistula is non-existent. Most students have only a bookish knowledge of the condition, with hardly (any awareness) of the debilitating details.”

This oversight has heavy ramifications in Pakistan, a hotbed of maternal and infant mortality. According to official statistics in the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey of 2007, the last time such data were gathered, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) of 276 per 100,000 live births is one of the highest in the region.

In comparison, according to the WHO, the MMR is 35 in Sri Lanka, 170 in Nepal, 200 in India and 240 in Bangladesh. Many other countries in South Asia are showing signs of progress, but Pakistan’s MMR has remained virtually unchanged since 1991.

In addition, the infant mortality rate is 78 deaths per 1,000 live births; for those under five the rate is even higher, touching 94 deaths per 1,000 live births. This means one in every 11 children born in Pakistan dies before reaching his or her fifth birthday.

The vast majority of these fatalities occur in the countryside, where women have little or no access to basic care. Most qualified female gynaecologists are reluctant to take up posts in remote rural areas, particularly in provinces like Balochistan and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), according to PMA’s Wasiq.

According a recent report by the British medical journal ‘The Lancet’, evidence-based interventions can prevent roughly 58 percent of an estimated 368,000 deaths of mothers, newborn babies and children. In addition, 49 percent of an estimated 180,000 stillbirths could be prevented by 2015.

For years, Syed and his colleagues have urged the government to invest in providing basic emergency obstetric care by deploying trained birth attendants into rural areas to advise families against early child marriage, one of the leading causes of fistula.

According to Syed, dispatching an additional 400,000 nurses, paramedics and midwives to some 80,000 villages across Pakistan would have a huge impact on maternal mortality rates.  So far, however, there only 148 schools training 28,000 midwives.

With no official monitoring of the situation, women who develop conditions like fistula have to rely on concerned relatives to take action on their condition.

Ahmed says it is always mothers, fathers and brothers who accompany fistula patients to treatment centres – rarely, if ever, do husbands or in-laws volunteer to deal with the condition.

In 2006, the PNFWH in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) started the Fistula Prevention and Treatment Project with the aim of providing free treatment services to fistula patients all over the country, and training service providers.

On May 23, the UNFPA marked the first-ever International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, with the aim of building on local efforts to raise awareness of a condition that is not “understood even in societies where it is prevalent.”

In the eight years since the UNFPA project began, 13 fistula repair centres have been set up across Pakistan, all in government hospitals; but trained doctors, who currently number about three dozen, have not increased proportionately.

Ahmed says building an adequate medical force to deal with the problem requires commitment, compassion and sensitivity without the expectation of anything in return.

“Then again,” said Syed, “not everyone is mad enough to spend hours on something that earns you prayers but no economic benefits.”

Medical practitioners tell IPS that an obstetrician’s salary in a government hospital is anywhere from 600 to 1,000 dollars per month. In comparison, those with private practices earn the same by performing just one caesarian section.

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Groaning Under Power Cuts, Scorching Temps in Pakistan Thu, 23 May 2013 15:25:02 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim The textile industry is suffering from the blackouts. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The textile industry is suffering from the blackouts. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan , May 23 2013 (IPS)

Raheel Tauseef is feeling quite powerless this summer. Frequent power outages in the industrial city of Faisalabad in the Punjab province of eastern Pakistan, where the 29-year-old and his family run three hosiery factories, are taking a heavy toll on their business.

“The power outage is anywhere between 12 and 16 hours,” Tauseef told IPS. We do get a respite of some four hours, but even that is not at a stretch. Just as the machines get rolling, the power goes off.”

So bad is the situation that the family has had to lay off over a thousand workers in the last two months. “Many factory owners are now keeping workers on a daily wage earning basis and pay them only on the days when there is work,” he said.

Little wonder then that Mian Zahid Aslam, president of the Faisalabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was sounding frustrated when IPS caught up with him over the phone.

Having sat through three gruelling back-to-back meetings, all he could say was: “We are done with meetings. We want some action now, and quick.” Apparently, all that the various stakeholders could discuss at the meetings was how best to end the energy shortfall and revive the dying industry.

“The fomenting anger of the factory workers will spill out on the streets if something is not done on a war footing,” said Aslam.

Fearing precisely such violence, the provincial government of Punjab has directed the administration to avoid unscheduled power outages which have now reached up to 20 hours a day.

Meanwhile, many industrialists in Punjab have installed huge generators, run either on gas or diesel, to meet their export deadlines. But this is not without its problems either.

“Due to shortage of gas, we get it only for three days,” said Tauseef. In desperation, many factory owners have switched to diesel, but even that has become precious now. “Buying diesel from the stations is almost like begging for it,” he added.
Over 80 per cent of the 3.2 million people in Faisalabad, a city dubbed the Manchester of Pakistan, are linked to the textile industry. It is home to nearly half of Pakistan’s textile factories.

The national trade body All-Pakistan Textile Mills Association reports that the sector accounts for over 50 per cent of Pakistan’s total exports of roughly 25 billion dollars, and employs 38 per cent of the manufacturing sector workforce. That works out to about 3.5 million people.

According to experts, Pakistan is losing between 1.3 per cent and two per cent of its gross domestic product due to the energy crisis and an ineffective law and order apparatus.

And the summer has only made the situation worse. With the mercury soaring well above 40 degrees centigrade across the country, there is a shortfall of 7,000 mega watts of power. Of the total demand for 16,000 mw, the available supply is only 9,000 mw.

Power cuts were a problem all political parties acknowledged in their manifestos for the May 11 elections. The party which finally won – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – had, in fact, ranked it second after the economy on its list of important things to address.

Their leader and now the prime minister designate, Nawaz Sharif, promised in his election rallies to end load-shedding in two years if his party was voted to power. He also vowed to make Pakistan one of the top ten economies of the world and talked about expensive schemes like bullet trains and privatising the national airline and the railways.

Not everyone was impressed, though. Haris Gazdar, a leading economist based in Karachi, capital of Sindh province, hoped the new government would “rethink the bullet train business.”

“Our politicians promise us the moon,” said Tauseef. “Energy is indeed a big challenge and I have yet to see a plan of action.”

On its part, the PML-N plans to pump in two billion dollars to generate 10,000 mw of electricity in the next five years. Half of this is expected to come from developing the Thar coalfields in Sindh and setting up coal-fired plants in that southern province.

This meets the approval of Pakistan’s former science and technology minister, Professor Atta ur Rahman. The previous ruling Pakistan People’s Party, he told IPS, had “opted wrongly for oil-based power plants due to the huge kickbacks they received.”

Top priority should be given to converting all the country’s power plants to coal, he believes. “China and India both use coal as the major source of energy,” he said.

And before the environmentalists leap up in protest at his suggestion, he added, “We can employ cheap locally fabricated filtering devices to clean up the emitted soot.”
Rahman is hopeful the new government can “overcome the problems.”

His only caveat: “They must appoint competent and honest professionals and observe merit.”

The water and power ministry too has warned that unless corruption in the National Power Control Centre in Islamabad is curbed, no improvement in performance can be expected.

The PML-N government will have to take some tough decisions if it is going to tackle the energy challenge with any amount of seriousness.

“To overcome the energy crisis, prices will have to be raised and dues recovered,” said Gazdar, who is the director of the Collective for Social Science Research in Karachi. “Alternatively, they can allocate more gas for power generation at the expense of other consumers.”

Petroleum minister Sohail Wajahat H. Siddiqui has already indicated a price hike without which, he said, the sector would suffer “irreparable economic and efficiency loss.”

With the government providing as subsidy the gap of Rs 3.02 per unit between the cost of producing electricity (Rs 11.91 per unit) and the price at which it is sold to the consumer (Rs 8.89 per unit), the Pakistani consumer can expect a hike in tariff as soon as the new government takes over the reins of power.

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Water Flows Again in the Valley Wed, 22 May 2013 13:27:31 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim A farmer walks past the solar panels used to pump water in the Soan Valley. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

A farmer walks past the solar panels used to pump water in the Soan Valley. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
SOAN VALLEY, Pakistan, May 22 2013 (IPS)

Staring out at his golden wheat field with satisfaction, 50-year old Alamgir Akbar says with a sigh of relief: “We’ve had a good crop this season.”

The farmer has waited a long time to utter those words. A resident of a small rural community on the outskirts of the Ucchali village in the Soan Valley, a 737-square-metre expanse of farmland in the Khushab district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, he has spent five years battling the impacts of a prolonged drought.

With just 12,000 acres of irrigated farmland and only saltwater lakes dotting the landscape, the Valley, which borders the hills of Punjab’s famous Salt Range, is not ideal for practicing agriculture.

Residents traditionally relied on rainwater to recharge their roughly 3,000 community wells, but half a decade of drought in the 1990s brought farming to a standstill and pitched the region’s 150,000 residents into the vortex of poverty.

Farmers here operate smallholdings of no more than five hectares, cultivating crops like cauliflower on flat land as well as terraces and selling the produce in Punjab’s big cities like Lahore, Faisalabad, Sargodha and Gujrat.

Before the drought hit, a farmer could typically earn a net profit of 600 to 800 dollars in a 75-day cropping period, but lost a considerable amount of this income on hiring trucks to transport goods to urban markets.

As the rains became increasingly infrequent, farmers were forced to bore tube wells, some as deep as 200 or 300 feet. This new system required investments in turbines to pump out the water, which in turn generated huge energy costs, as the 26-horsepower machines guzzled gallon after gallon of diesel.

Unable to afford the necessary investments, farmers turned to relatives for loans and sold their animals or other assets to continue farming.

When villagers began to chop down trees for fuel it sparked a process of deforestation, which then “accelerated the rate of soil erosion” and increased the risk of prolonged drought, Gulbaz Afaqi, director of the Soan Valley Development Programme (SVDP), told IPS.

Yields dropped, and farmers like Akbar began to despair.

Bringing back water

Driving down the mud track to Ucchali, the tranquil and almost picture-perfect pastoral scene is marred by solar panels.

But what outsiders see as an eyesore, villagers see as an angel of mercy. Owned and operated collectively by 12 families, these three-kilowatt panels are helping to pump water – and new life – into the farmers’ fields.

The landscape is once again alive with patches of cauliflower, coriander, chillies and potatoes as a pilot project spearheaded by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) begins to bear fruit.

Working with 112 partner organisations in more than 90,000 settlements spread across 120 districts in Pakistan, the fund aims to help this country of 170 million meet the targets defined in the Millennium Development Goals before the 2015 deadline.

Armed with donations from the government, international agencies and corporate entities, the PPAF embarked on a nationwide programme of drought mitigation and disaster management in 2003, which quickly identified the Soan Valley as “one of the areas that needed our attention,” PPAF spokesperson Zaffar Pervez Sabri told IPS.

Determined to avoid the worst-case scenario of locals being forced to sell their livestock or migrate from the Valley, the PPAF developed a “water balance model” to manage and conserve remaining resources and address the impacts of climate change, according to Sabri.

To date, the fund has enabled the construction of 124 irrigation pipes feeding over 8,000 acres of farmland; 60 rainwater harvesting ponds, each about the size of an acre; five delay action dams that collect surface water and are ideal for the Valley’s pitted landscape; 40 check dams, which help to prevent erosion; and 12 natural resource management schemes, benefitting over 100,000 people.

Villagers themselves raised the money for the solar panels that pump the water, giving community members a sense of ownership over the project. “We collected 6,000 dollars from the village, and the fund provided the other 6,000,” Afaqi said. By eliminating the need for diesel pumps, the panels have enabled farm communities to save over 2,000 dollars annually.

Villagers also replaced traditional open channel irrigation networks with the more efficient pipe irrigation system to avoid “huge losses and water evaporation in unpaved water courses,” said Afaqi, adding, “The PVC pipes facilitate even distribution of water into the field.”

Mohammad Ismail, an engineer working with the SVDP, told IPS that pipe irrigation is especially useful on slopes where surface water would otherwise run off.

A 50-percent increase in crop yields after this transition nudged farmers into accepting other, more comprehensive changes in their lives, such as new crops and cropping patterns.

Following the SVDP’s advice, farmers gave up cultivating cauliflower, a water-intensive crop that needs to be watered 16 times in 75 days, in favour of potatoes, “which need to be irrigated only eight times,” a local farmer named Sher Khan told IPS.

Potatoes have become a major cash crop in the area, with 46 percent of irrigated land dedicated solely to their production.

In addition, farmers grow chillies in the summer, wheat in the winter and practice year-round horticulture with nectarines and peaches.

The water scheme has made farming viable once more – with just a single acre of land, according to Afaqi, the average farmer can earn a monthly profit of 1,200 dollars on potatoes, 1,500 dollars on coriander and between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars on wheat.

“With an initial investment of about 1.3 million dollars, combined with technical assistance from the PPAF and hard work by the farming communities, we have created a new economy that generates over six million dollars annually,” said Afaqi.

The programme has also spawned interest in local water conservation efforts, including bi-monthly monitoring of ground water resources at 40 different locations, he added.

Reports from quarterly inspections suggest the groundwater table is improving. Regular monitoring also serves as a kind of early-warning system, by alerting farmers about decreasing water tables ahead of cropping cycles.

For farmers like Akbar, the project has literally helped him and his large extended family – spread between 12 homes in Ucchali – achieve their modest dreams.

“All our children go to school,” he says, pride written all over his face as he conducts a brief tour of his humble brick home. The small, attached toilet at the back symbolises huge progress: “It means we no longer have to go out into the fields to relieve ourselves,” he said with a smile.

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