Africa, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Environment, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

PAKISTAN: Quake Orphans Still Dependent on Charity, NGOs

Irfan Ahmed

ISLAMABAD, May 29 2008 (IPS) - Thousands of children orphaned by the earthquake that hit northern Pakistan in October 2005, leaving 85,000 people dead, continue to be dependent on charity and support provide by donors and non-government organisations (NGOs).

According to estimates in the ‘Earthquake Vulnerability Assessment,’ a study conducted by the New York-based Population Council and United Nations bodies in 2005, the earthquake resulted in some 1,700 children losing both parents, while another 40,000 lost one parent.

Living in shelters set up by social welfare organisations and international donor bodies like the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), many of these orphans have an uncertain future since the government is yet to announce a comprehensive policy.

The Population Council was asked by the U.N. to gather data on the people living in tent camps. The fieldwork began on Jan. 4, 2006 in harsh terrain and weather conditions but the council collected information from every individual living in camps that contained ten or more tents.

Even those who have been taken under the wing of their extended families, usually uncles, aunts or grandparents, were living in conditions far from ideal.

Typical was the case of Muhammed Maskeen who lives in Balakot with his wife and four orphaned grandchildren – his son and daughter-in-law having died in the earthquake. The family was identified as extremely vulnerable by a UNICEF-supported child protection committee based in the community and composed of community members, religious leaders, health workers, police officers, parents and teachers.

Perceiving the special vulnerability of the quake orphaned, the government imposed restrictions on adoptions, which, to the annoyance of many who genuinely want to adopt these children, are still in place.

Sarah Nuttall, founder and president of Pakistan Adoption Group(PAG), told IPS that it is due to the bar on adoptions that many of these children are languishing in shelters and orphanages. PAG is an online group of people from all over the world who are considering, are in the process of adopting or have already adopted a child from Pakistan.

Nuttall says after the earthquake, the membership of the PAG swelled dramatically. The group receives from people all over the world, Muslims and non-Muslims, Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis, asking for help with adopting children.

"We now have over 400 members all over the world. If even a quarter of them were to come forward to adopt a child orphaned by the earthquake, at least a hundred children will find a home and family,’’ she said.

One concern is the possibility of orphans falling into the hands of religious extremists. Jawad Hussain Qureshi, South Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group, said in a 2006 report that "every religious organisation has announced, through mosque loudspeakers, banners and pamphlets, that it will adopt children orphaned by the earthquake, rather than leave them at the mercy of western NGOs.’’

Abid Qayyum Suleri, executive director, Sustainable Policy Development Institute (SPDI), Pakistan, told IPS that his organisation, in association with the British-based Save the Children, visited around 11 orphanages in the earthquake affected areas and examined the conditions of children living there. It was found that 1,400 orphans were living in institutions managed by the government or NGOs in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, North West Frontier Province and Islamabad.

Suleri said the visit was conducted in the wake of newspaper reports of attempts to abduct or sell off these children and that madrassas (religious seminaries) were trying to get hold of them.

A PaK official told IPS that the government is aware that there is a dire need to devise a long-term policy for these children. Otherwise, the moment donor agencies withdraw from the area they will have no place to go, he adds.

The official said that although a National Child Protection Policy has been developed and is currently being reviewed by Pakistan's ministry of social welfare and special education, there is no timeframe set for its approval.

Sandra Bisin, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, told IPS that the district social welfare departments and Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), with the assistance of UNICEF and Save the Children, have established child protection units in such affected districts as Mansehra, Muzaffarabad and Bagh.

About the orphaned children's likely enrolment in madrassas, Bisin said UNICEF believes that priority should be given to keeping children with their (extended) families and ensuring a stable, family-based environment for children without parents. Institutionalised care for orphans and other vulnerable children, whether managed by the government, NGOs or religious organisations, should be a last resort, she said.

Republish | | Print |