A displaced Pakistani woman holds her grandson. She was displaced by fighting in North Pakistan. This photo is via UNHCR. Noor/A.Fazzina

The Impossible Suffering of Pakistani Women Displaced by War

Fouzia Bibi, mother of three from Waziristan, Pakistan lost her husband to the Taliban in the beginning of 2014. Six months later she lost her home too.

In June, the government and the military began an operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) and one of the air strikes took her home away.

Bibi is among the one million Pakistanis who have been displaced from Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan due to the government and military action against the Taliban. Around 74 percent of the internally displaced are women and children, according to the United Nations. Among them are 36,000 pregnant women.

“We will be displaced for life now, I know that. This temporary tent is my home forever. Who will build a home for us?” Bibi told me in a phone interview from her small temporary camp in Bannu, where most of the refugees from Waziristan are staying.

I am a physician from Pakistan, now living in Dallas, and I spoke with more than 20 of the women in the camps by phone this summer.

These displaced women are facing a tragically complex situation. Getting food and aid is exceptionally challenging for them as most lack local identification cards and are forbidden by tribal elders from going to distribution centers. Most do not have ID cards to begin with as being photographed is not acceptable in their society. Others live in areas so remote that they have no access to government offices that could provide them with ID cards.

In their conservative culture, these women also are barred from performing chores outside of their homes.

Many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was extreme despair and anxiety displayed in every conversation. All universally have a common sense of impending doom and worthlessness.

“We are like uninvited relatives. Nobody wants us or needs us around,” Bibi told me. “Most people sympathize with us. For some we are a burden and for others, an opportunity for God’s mercy, but really for us, everything has changed, forever and we’ll never leave these tents or these camps. Even if we go back, where do we go back…?”

These women, most of who have lost their spouses or fathers or brothers in the war-torn region are at the mercy of their local Jirga, or all-male village council, which also have influence in the camps.

“They call us their ‘honor,’ but to them that is all that matters,” Bibi said. “Whether we starve does not matter to the Jirga, who will not let us get food from the food lines because leaving our homes compromises our ‘honor.’ What good is this ‘honor’ if we starve to death.”

The national government and international community can–and should–help these women. Here’s how:

-The NGO’s providing local and foreign aid need to focus on the education that would enable these women to get the help that they need. Food lines and tents are not enough when they are not accessible by the population needing them.

– The Jirgas also need to be educated to allow these women access to the help they need. Psychiatric and psychological care needs to be provided to these people who have lost their lives and loved ones to the Taliban and the resultant military action.

-This is also the time for foreign organizations and governments to help these women and children. They need drinking water, food, homes and mental health assistance.

-The world needs to offer humanitarian assistance to these unsung heroes against the war on terrorism who have given up everything to support the government and the military. The government should provide them with housing, support system and counseling, before the so-called charity organizations, who have a soft support for the Taliban and ties with several militant groups, offer help to the displaced masses.

We cannot betray these brave souls and ignore their sacrifice.

Dr. Mona Kazim Shah hosts a radio show “Politics Today” about Pakistan on FunAsia Radio and is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project at Texas Woman’s University. She is a doctor from Pakistan and now lives in Dallas.