Instep Today

The tough side of life

Instep Today
By Sarah B Haider
Tue, 03, 15

This week You! takes a look at the problems of women belonging to the fisherfolk community in Atharki village...

For most urbanites, life seems to be full of problems. People often whine about the troubles they face every day — from ups and downs in relationships to not being able to afford a designer outfit to complaining about not liking a restaurant because the food is not up to the mark. However, if urbanites witness how people live in the remote villages of Pakistan, their perspective on life would certainly change.

A recent learning/exposure visit by female journalists to Shah Bander and Atharki village, situated at Kharo Chann Taluka in Thatta district  — facilitated by the Pakistan Council of Media Women (PCMW) — revealed another side of life that privileged urbanites could never even imagine.

It takes a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Gharo and another 20-minute boat ride to reach the Atharki village, which is home to the fishermen community of Sindh. The village, comprising around 900 households, has a majority of the female population. Upon approaching the village, surrounded by small mud and thatched huts, hordes of women and children could be seen waiting at the shore with their sad and tired eyes pleading for help.

The major issue

Three years ago, some 45 fishermen belonging to the same village had been arrested by the Indian Navy for treading enemy waters. Since then, the affected women and children have to bear the primary responsibility for sustenance as well as water collection in the vast majority of households.

Due to the location of the village, there is no agriculture on the island, so fishing is the sole means of survival for these people. Consequently, women have to face a lot of hardships.

 “Three years ago, ten male members of my family, including my husband, two sons, my brothers and my nephews, had been arrested by the Indian Navy for allegedly crossing the ‘boundary’ and entering Indian waters. Since then, I and other women in the family have been entirely on our own. We sell embroidered caps and motifs and receive a meagre sum of money which is not enough,” lamented Sahib Khatoon, a 45-year-old woman from the village.

According to Mohammad Ali Shah, founder of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) — a network of fishing communities that advocates for the rights of the fisherfolk and builds the financial and social infrastructure to allow them to access employment and income benefits  — Article 73 of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea states that if the fishermen of one country cross the border while fishing, they cannot be arrested. They should be warned and advised to return to their territories. This, however, was not the case with fishermen from Atharki village, as they were arrested for "trespassing".

"The reason due to which fishermen often enter foreign waters without knowing is the absence of any kind of boundary or defining line which could make them aware of their movements," said Shah. "Yet, no such measures have been taken by Pakistan or India and as a result, fishermen of both countries are often detained by the two rival navies."

No governmental support

Residents of the village complain that as soon as the election season approaches, politicians come to meet them, take photographs with them, listen to everyone’s pleas, make speeches in front of the camera, make tall claims and leave, never to return. Despite knowing that there is no one to earn for the families in the absence of the head of the families, the government has not taken any step to address the problem or provide financial assistance to the affected households, residents told You!

“Some elderly women, however, received money under the Benazir Income Support Programme, but some of them received half of the promised amount. Since the government did not take any measures to bring our fishermen back, we decided to use our embroidery skills to sustain ourselves,” said 43-year-old Fatima Bibi.

While some women survive by selling embroidery, others are not skilled enough to perform any kind of jobs in the absence of their males. As a result, such families have become completely dependent on others for financial support. 

“I have a two-year-old son, who was born after my husband, Omar, was arrested. Despite the villagers being poor themselves, they have extended maximum financial support to me to sustain myself and my child. I have not received any kind of assistance from the government or any other NGO,” shared 23-year-old Rani.

Lack of basic healthcare facilities

Rural women experience poor health outcomes and have less access to healthcare facilities than urban women. In the case of Atharki Village, not a single healthcare facility is available.

Therefore, whenever any medical emergency arises, the villagers have to travel to Gharo Village, which is two-and-a-half hours away from Atharki. Many a time, people die on the way to the hospital. Women, in particular, have to face a lot of problems, especially when it comes to childbirth. Due to poor living conditions, inadequate diet, unhygienic delivery procedures, and lack of proper medical treatment and medication, women often face premature labour, lower infant birth weight, and stillbirths.

According to Aisha Bibi, a 52-year-old midwife: “Mostly, women in the village take care of all the labour cases themselves as, over the years, we have become accustomed to the practice. Due to inadequate healthcare facilities, women develop complications for which we have to travel by boat and then by bus to reach the nearest medical centre. Sometimes, women die on the way, too. Politicians come to us only when they need votes and promise to build healthcare facilities here, but once they get the votes, they completely forget about us."

In most developing countries, it is a norm in rural areas to get females married as soon as they attain puberty, which wreaks havoc on their reproductive health. Some of the girls, whose husbands had been arrested, were as young as fourteen years of age. Despite the repercussions of early marriages, however, the authorities concerned have not tried to provide the basic level of intervention, explaining to the women how to deal with a range of health and hygiene problems, such as menstrual hygiene and Aids/HIV.

Sakina, an 18-year-old, mother of two kids said: “Over the years, no lady health worker has ever visited our village. Nonetheless, the polio team comes here every year and the people of the village cooperate with them. We are thankful that at least our children receive polio drops.”

Though polio drops are given to the children in these remote villages, none of the children has ever been immunised for other diseases. When asked about immunisation, which is necessary for all children under the age of five, the women were not even aware of such a thing.

There is a medical store in the village, but the person selling the medicines is neither trained, nor does he have any know-how of prescribing medicines. The seller and the villagers do not have any idea about the expiry date or side effects of the medicines. “Whenever we need medicines, we go to the only medical store and tell the seller about our condition. He then prescribes us the medicine,” said Rahima Bibi, a 16-year-old mother of one kid.

No access to drinkable water

 Although Atharki Village is surrounded by the Indus River from all sides, the absence of a water treatment plant in the village leaves the villagers with no other option but to create artificial ponds and store water. There is just one pond in the village, from where both the animals as well as humans drink water. This leads to many kinds of waterborne diseases like Malaria, Cholera, Dysentery, Leptospirosis, etc. 

“Our men told us that the city dwellers get treated water, but the government does not help us in this regard at all. As a result, our people often get afflicted with waterborne diseases. Oftentimes, we are unable to get appropriate treatment because it takes a lot of time to reach the nearest healthcare centre where we have to sit for hours, waiting for our turns,” said Zeenat, a 30-year-old mother of five kids.

Education -a distant dream

Whenever someone thinks about education in the rural areas of Pakistan, the first image that flashes before the eyes is of an open-air school, with children sitting on a mat and studying under the scorching sunlight. But this was not the case with Atharki Village. Surprisingly, a sturdy school building, comprising three spacious classrooms, was constructed in the village by the Government of Pakistan in 2004. The said school, called the Government Primary School, is a completely non-functional school where there have been no teachers at all.

“When the school had opened, it was a ray of light for the villagers. We started dreaming that our children will go to school and will have a prosperous future, but all our dreams and hopes went in vain, bewailed Fatima Bibi.

" Ever since the school has been built, not a single class has been conducted here. We don’t have any teachers in the village. Nevertheless, some local clerics have decided to hold regular classes here to teach Quran to children, but the government has completely ignored this issue."

The visit to the village revealed numerous issues that the villagers face every day. However, their priority is to bring their fishermen back to Pakistan. As for the other issues that the people of these villages face, for instance, the extreme lack of basic facilities, they demand concerted action to make a positive long-term difference.