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Category Archives: Human Rights

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful commited citizens can change the world – indeed it is the only thing that ever does” -Margaret Meade

Udaari reveals Pakistan’s best kept secrets

Published: September 29, 2016
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PHOTO: Draamaz

PHOTO: Draamaz

“Watch Udaari; it is unlike any other drama,” I had said, trying to convince a friend to watch the drama. “No way! Children being abused. Don’t want to even think about it,” was the immediate response.

Brushing issues under the carpet is what we do best. A study titled ‘The state of Pakistan’s children 2015’ by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) states 10 cases of child sexual abuse took place every day in 2015, bringing the total to 3,768 cases last year. These are registered cases. Any educated and realistic guess will tell us that to get the real number it would have to be multiplied manifold. Of these, a lot of abuse cases are incestuous. Communal living may have many advantages as a support system but also exposes unassuming children, and even grown-ups, to the dangers of sexual abuse and rape.

Mann Mayal has ended and Twitter can’t handle it

What Udaari has done is remarkable. It was not because Ahsan Khan played out a difficult character with unexpected brilliance, and that Samia Mumtaz played Sajju so convincingly that everyone who saw the drama wanted to bring her and Zebo home and protect them. It was a brilliant play, well scripted and directed, and technically could have been more nuanced and the characters more layered, but this is not a review of Udaari. This is a look in the mirror. And Udaari became that mirror.

As a journalist who has worked on gender rights and sexual and reproductive health issues, I have met victims of rape of all kinds, including victims of marital rape and sex workers who were raped. Rape is never a laughing matter. Whenever someone cracks a joke about rape, I think of the times when these jokes may not have bothered me because I had not met the butts of those jokes and heard their stories in person. I had not seen the scars, both physical and non-physical, that acts of cowardice and weakness such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape leave behind. Watching Udaari made me think of some unfortunate souls, victims and others survivors.

When those children in Kasur, who were sexually abused by the gang who made a living out of selling videos of the acts and blackmailed them, saw Udaari with their families, what must it be like for them? What was the reaction of viewers who saw Udaari in groups or in isolation in Pakistan’s many homes where traders of the flesh reside? The woman in Tharparkar who was gang-raped some two years ago, and got justice after I wrote her story that prompted a suo moto action by the chief justice – what was she thinking when she saw Udaari? The play hit home with the audiences. But it must have been an unforgettable watch for those who have directly or indirectly been exposed to such despicable acts.

Udaari cast shares final thoughts as fans await finale

In 1980 an Indian film, Insaf ka Tarazu, starring Zeenat Aman was initially met with negative responses for being too bold. Rape was something that was not meant to be depicted so openly. It opened certain shut doors. Udaari has managed a much bolder theme more than two decades later in Pakistan, deftly and without relying on the objectification of women as sex objects. It has succeeded in making sure that the take-home message remains that one who has been raped need not be a victim but also be a survivor, instead of the focus being on Zebo’s youth or beauty. This is no mean feat.

But perhaps the biggest contribution of any article, news clipping or talk show, or any drama like Udaari is daring to make taboo and hushed up topics like child sexual abuse open to discussion on a dinner table, at work place and on social media. Let us stop pretending that these evils don’t exist in our society, and that too closer to us than we think. Recognising an issue is the first step to solving it.

She was 13 and he was 39 – Rape & Consent

Men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price. PHOTO: FILE

The 15-year-old girl from Lahore gave her “consent” and he was her “boyfriend”, and so it is not rape, they say.

This case is garnering a very expected response. But why are we surprised? It reminds me of a case I came across a while back. A 13-year-old girl fell for her 39-year-old neighbour. They started chatting via the internet. One day, when she was home alone, he coerced her into having a sexual encounter. Reality was not as the girl had imagined. When it actually happened, she yelled, cried and resisted but was raped. But the men in her own family, her own relatives, were of the opinion that this incident should be brushed under the rug and no complain should be lodged with the police.

“Larki buhut taiz hai. Ghalti humari hi larki ki hai. Chakkar chalaya hua tha us aadmi se. Yeh to hona hee tha.”

(The girl is very fast. The fault lies with our girl. She had an affair with that man. This was bound to happen).

This is not to say that it is just men who further these stereotypes.

It would also be unfair to assume that only females are raped. Painful incidents where young boys are raped or sexually abused mercilessly keep surfacing on the media. But the numbers, compared to females, are jarringly lower. Hence, here we will discuss the predicament women are faced with.

Staring in our faces is the reality that unless a woman, of any age, has pushed away, kicked or tried to hit the man forcing himself upon her, and has signs of that physical scuffle in the form of torn clothes and bruises, she will not be considered a victim of ‘rape’. And even that will be accepted only if the man was a stranger practically. If at all she had an inclination towards the man and/or had any one-on-one communication with him at any point in the past, she will be considered one of loose character and having brought the ‘inevitable’ upon herself.

This definition of rape is so inbuilt in our society’s system that the idea of rape beyond this is considered… well… not rape. So much so that other categories of rape, in which some form of consent is present at some stage, may be involved from the woman’s side, are ruled off the list of kinds of rape in an absolutist fashion.

The girl gang raped in Lahore was a minor. Even if, hypothetically, she knew or liked the man, she is a child, not an adult. It is recognised as statutory rape even under Pakistani law which is generally not the most women-friendly. But a Pakistani publication went as far as using insensitive language like “…to meet her boyfriend…” and “the tests proved that the couple had been engaged in a consenting relationship”.

If this is the mentality being echoed by an English language publication, what thought process do we expect the average uneducated or less evolved Pakistani to exhibit? If the minor is not old enough to have a driver’s license or an identity card, is he or she old enough to discern and decide the consequences of indulging in a sexual relationship?

The 13-year-old girl I mentioned earlier was a normal, curious child who knew little what this encounter with her almost 40-year-old neighbour would lead to. But that man knew exactly what he was doing. How is this, then, not rape?

Another example is how every time we use the term “marital rape”, many, if not all, will express shock over the idea – shock that is genuine, as it is considered unthinkable that anything within the bond of marriage could be wrong. Others know what it means but say all is fair in nikkah and vows.

But perhaps the most insidious form of sexual exploitation is when a woman is exploited via emotional manipulation. Leading someone on with the pretence of commitment and promises of a marriage has led many girls and women in our society to points of no return. And this happens across the board – it is not restricted to urban or rural, affluent or underprivileged. After giving their all, women are left in the lurch.

Again, men face infidelity and are wronged and cheated in relationships too. But women, globally, end up paying a bigger price.

Thus in many cases, the seeming “consent” actually has layers of details in the background that one does not know. Talking about this is important so that as a society, we learn to understand the difference.

Kasur child pornography: Knowing the difference between resistance and consent

Published: August 10, 2015

One official has called it “the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history.” PHOTO: REUTERS

I don’t curse. But this is a rare occasion where I would love to abuse the perpetrators of the Kasur children’s sexual abuse atrocity in the vilest possible terms. However, here’s the thing about cursing – If I curse, I would end up using words that revile their mothers, sisters, and use the same pile of filth in words that they actually went and committed by use of force, intoxication and blackmailing.

So I would only be furthering the same thought process, where sex is connected with a position of power.  People who curse using sexual terminology are played into feeling a sense of control, and it allows one to vent unrestrictedly. In a twisted and mutated way, so does rape or molesting a child. So no, cursing will not help. We have to come up with something better. Understanding how child sexual abuse is happening in a society where the Youtube blocks have clearly not mitigated paedophilia, leave alone pornography, some things needs to be understood.

This particular incident is so painful and sensitive that we have re-evaluated each word we are using. Scandal, for example, is a wrong word to use here, because it can be used for rumour or gossip. This incident is no rumour it happens to be a real wound that will remain etched in the Pakistani nation’s collective memory. One must also not compare the criminals with animals, because such brutality is rare among animals.

All I can do is pray earnestly that may they be punished without an iota of compassion shown to them, may they be made a bad example of, and may they burn in the lowest depths of hell.

Yet, just condemning them to hell is not enough. Some 500 abused children, 15 accused (the youngest of them is allegedly just 14-years-old), seven FIRs, and a judicial probe order later, have we learnt anything about the monstrosity that child sexual abuse is? This had been going on for years! Black mailing, cover ups, a silent town. The details will keep emerging as the story unfolds, and we may never know what the exact truth is.

These children were in big numbers, and numbers jolt us awake, albeit temporarily. But what about what happens around us?

Have we seen the number of street children in Karachi alone, and do we realise that each one of them is sexually molested within days of being initiated onto the open roads?

Which one of us has not come across stories of children being molested sexually?

The accused, for whom we all are praying for eternal damnation, are from among us. Sexual abuse at a tender age rewires the brain in mysterious ways. Every child who has undergone this trauma suffers from neurobiological, as well as long-term psychological effects. Each case will be different, as will how the child, even when a grown adult, processes it.

But the scar will remain. For some, the long-term impacts may be milder but debilitating– like deep-rooted psychiatric disorders, depression, anxiety, failed relationships, inherently low self-esteem, use of sex as a means of feeling better about themselves, and irresponsible decisions when it comes to sexual activity. For others, it might be an aversion to sex and prudish behaviour for a long time. In a worst case scenario, he/she who was once the victim, is now the perpetrator.

Pakistan, fortunately, still has a social system where very few will agree with post-modernist and other theories, where childhood is not considered the age of innocence. An example is what was said in the California Childhood Sensuality Circle, by its main figure Valida Davila, in 1981:

“We believe children should begin sex at birth”.

A legal minor, or a child, is a child, not yet in a position where he or she can make an informed decision about entering into such activity. While the law of Pakistan agrees with this, and whether the child resisted or not, considers it statutory rape when a minor is sexually molested, not everyone in society agrees.

I came across a recent case, and this is factual, where a 12-year-old girl was raped by a man in his 40s. The two had been interacting and chatting as they lived in the same neighbourhood. Even after the rape was proven and the man confessed, people of the neighbourhood and the girl’s own relatives were heard saying

“It was not really rape as she is a very tez (conniving) girl and was having an affair with him; she never resisted”.

The child was a curious 12-year-old with raging hormones, not a consenting adult.

The difference must be understood in the backdrop of the Kasur incident, because now that the entire community knows which children were sexually abused and filmed, those films will be run and rerun to see where there were signs of resistance, and where the child seemed to consent. Sadly, but surely, the incident will haunt those 500 young lives and their families in a judgmental society.

Child sexual abuse perpetrators, as psychologists confirm, often befriend the child and develop a comfort level where they do not have to use physical force. Yet, because it is a child in question, it is an unfair equation and abuse of the highest order.

But what is perhaps most worrisome, that there is a market out there, and an avid watcher of these films, who may not be an active paedophile himself, but enjoys the sickening, cheap thrills of watching a helpless child being forced into the act.

This is an unsafe, bad, bad world. In your community, watch out for any suspicious activity, and report it, whether it is your child or someone else’s. Protect your child at all costs, especially when at a formative, unripe age where the child cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Do not trust anyone with your child. And if you happen to know someone who was a victim, stop judging that person. Most importantly, seek help, both psychological and legal.

May the Kasur incident be the last of its kind. And may we have learnt some lessons to protect our children.

Dreams from Balochistan: A garbage picker from Quetta makes a movie, tells his tale

Published: June 28, 2015
http://tribune.com.pk/story/910980/dreams-from-balochistan-a-garbage-picker-from-quetta-makes-a-movie-tells-his-tale/
Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers. PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers. PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

KARACHI: A part of his face may still be scarred but this strapping young 18-year-old man from Quetta has eyes full of dreams, and some of these dreams have begun to come true.

Life changed for Ashraf Khan since people from Institute for Development Studies and Practices (IDSP)-Pakistan stumbled upon him. The teenager has learnt lessons beyond his years. By the age of 15, he had already experienced poverty, an acid injury, garbage picking as a profession, and drug addiction as an escape.

Read: Balochistan unrest: FC nails six alleged insurgents in separate raids

“It was Ramazan and I was seven years old,” recalled Ashraf. “We put slabs of wood on the wall as makeshift cupboards and one of them carried a bottle of acid. I was sleeping on the floor. It was dark. My mother came to pick something and dropped the acid on me by mistake.”

His handsome features, once ravaged by acid burns, have now begun to emerge again, thanks to the treatment for which IDSP and Indus Hospital have helped him. Ashraf became a garbage picker around the same time he had the accident. With nine siblings and a father too old and sick to work, child labour was inevitable, that too the worst kind as a scavenger of waste.

“I would earn Rs200 to Rs300 a day, and would spend it mostly on my treatment,” he said. “I used to get two injections a day. My face used to bleed and I would smell of and ooze pus. People could not sit with me and have food.”

Finding a guiding hand from IDSP, he was brought to Karachi some two and a half years ago when he was operated on at Indus Hospital. “I cannot express how happy I was. My Ammi could not believe it when my brother sent her my picture. I had a face once again.” Ashraf has never been to school and talks in Urdu with difficulty, but has already produced a documentary film on the plight of garbage pickers and it has been well-received.

Read: Balochistan govt announces general amnesty for militants who lay down their arms

Budding filmmaker Ali Ahmed (left) dreams of one day making a film that will be shown in a cinema, while young Ashraf Khan (right) has overcome poverty, an acid injury and drug addiction to produce a documentary on the plight of garbage pickers.

PHOTOS COURTESY: ALI AHMED (LEFT) AND ASHRAF KHAN (RIGHT)

Ashraf is one of the 30 students who exhibited their short films and documentaries at the Pak-American Cultural Center under the IDSP Film Festival, 2015. Sensitive subjects, such as target killing, violence, human rights, living in conflict zones, sectarian violence and social marginalisation were tackled deftly in these films. “All the funding to make these films was provided by IDSP,” said Asma Zafar, IDSP’s institutional support manager, who is a mentor to many young people from Balochistan.

Read: In session: Balochistan Assembly debates power shortage

Ashraf admitted the idea to make a film came to his heart. “I want more and more people to see it so that people understand what garbage pickers go through,” he said about his production and directorial debut in which he dabbled with a little bit of acting too.

Today, Ashraf has started reading and writing, and he guides other young garbage pickers in Karachi. “Only a garbage picker can understand the problem of another one,” he said, sharing his dream of setting up a centre for garbage pickers. “When young people do not get mentors and guidance, they can get lost. If I had not gotten guidance, I would be just another druggy lost on the streets and life would have left me behind.”

Pursuing his passion: Two goats for a film

Another budding filmmaker, Ali Ahmed, 23, is ready to pay any price to pursue his passion for film making. “I had to sell two of my goats to make the film and come to Karachi for the screening,” he said. “My family thinks all films are vulgar like the Bollywood ones. I want to make films that remove their misconception.”

Read: Water for all: Gwadar desalination plant ready after probe

Ahmed’s father wants him to go to Dubai instead to make some money but he insisted on pursuing his passion for filmmaking. “I have started a small production concern in Quetta and I dream that one day I will make a film that will be showed in a cinema.”

His 20-minute-long film, called ‘Dhutuk’ meaning doll in Brahwi, comments on the devastating effects of terrorism on families. “I want to show that when one person dies in an act of terrorism, an entire family dies with him or her.” After coming to IDSP, Ali feels he has found his calling and knows what to work towards.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2015.

Forced to sell alcohol: Why is the ‘ummah’ silent over the plight of Chinese Muslims?

Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes. PHOTO: AFP

Imagine if you are a vegetarian Hindu and hold the cow sacred, that beef is shoved into your mouth. Imagine if you are a staunch Christian, that you are forbidden to baptise your newborn baby.

Painful? Yes.

Some of us may even say what’s new in this, and Pakistan’s minorities have suffered this and more. And they have. And no minority anywhere in the world should have to go through this.

But there is a huge difference in this and what is happening to the Muslims in Xinjiangprovince in China. In Pakistan, this is done at the hands of extremists. But in China, it is at an official level that Muslims are forbidden from practicing Islam. The last year or more has seen repeated incidents of Muslims, a religious minority in China, being coerced into going against their religious beliefs. That too under state patronage.

To remind ourselves, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan’s bestie, is where media is stillstate-owned. Instead of monitoring media, they control it! Coercion is also a norm when it comes to the nation’s reproductive health decisions. While family planning is a legitimate aim, the modus operandi is faulty and against the spirit of human freedom to lead lives as they see fit.

What is happening in Xinjiang is another example of this tendency we see in China. While it is justified if China wants to mitigate extremist groups in the region, why must all Muslims in the region have to suffer because of what some are doing?

It makes one shudder to see the news and images that on social media in recent months. Imams being forced to dance, fasting being banned, women being forcibly stopped from wearing veils and men not being allowed to grow beards . The imams were, in fact, made to swear to an oath that they would not teach religion to their children. They were forced to tell children that prayer was harmful for the soul and had to chant the slogan that,

“Our income comes from the CKP (Chinese Communist Party) not from Allah (SWT)”.

In a verdict that made headlines, a court in China sentenced a Uighur Muslim man to six years in prison for “provoking trouble” and growing a beard. His wife also, reportedly, was served a two-year sentence for using a veil to cover her face.

The recent most bit of news is very disturbing. Chinese authorities have commanded Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in Xinjiang to sell alcohol and cigarettes, and display them in eye-catching ways to undermine Islam’s influence on locals and as part of a campaign to weaken religion, according to reports.

While extremism leading to terrorism is something every nation will deal with in its own way, reactive policies end up, in fact, further fuelling extremism. The more you try to stop something by force and not via dialogue, the more it will get inflamed. The cycle of hate and violence will continue if we keep pushing communities and people against the wall.

While the Pakistan-China friendship is encouraging for our nation, one is forced to wonder how come our rulers, who claim to be staunch Muslims, have not raised their voice against all this in any forum. Is it a case of vested interests silencing an important issue?

Sadly, Pakistan is not the only Muslim country that has remained silent on this issue. The “ummah” remains conspicuous by its absence as usual, chooses its battles wisely, and only fights for causes that have an incentive in the end. There is no one to fight for the underdog. In this case, that is the Chinese Muslims. It seems that China is too strong, and the world is too enamoured by it or too indebted to it to take up this human rights issue.

What these people are being subjected to leaves us also with another introspection in the end. Part of the problem here is stereotyping. The beard. The pants above the ankles. The burqa. The face veil. Things that are expressions of a centuries’ old faith are being seen as signature marks of extremism, so much so that peace loving Muslims face reverse discrimination in their own communities and in their own homeland.

The next time we assess someone on the basis of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes we have been fed, let us check ourselves for unfairness that we all are often guilty of.

Do human rights activists hate Imran Khan because he is not a leftist?

Published: November 26, 2014

Imran may not be your typical human rights activist, but he is one all right. One of the best. PHOTO: AFP

The young girl who works as domestic help for me said,

Baji, do you know why our men don’t want Imran Khan to come into power? It is because they are scared that women in the villages will gain strength if he becomes our prime minister. Already, he supports women standing up for their rights. The jalsas are a proof of this. But we will make sure he wins. We are by his side.”

This was the morning after Imran gave an inspiring and honest talk from his container as PTI celebrated “Justice for Women Day”. I had heard that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would be celebrating this day a few weeks earlier from a friend who is active in PTI, and a close aid of Imran. I had asked her if the date, November 25th, had been chosen to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

“Really? It’s the same day? I’m not sure. You know how PTI works. We do what feels right, for the rights of the downtrodden. Doesn’t matter if it’s a special day or not.”

My default setting had taken over, and I had asked her if they had invited any known human rights’ activists for the occasion. She smiled and said,

“They don’t like us very much you know.”

As a human rights activist and a journalist who reports passionately on human rights and has friends from the field, I also support PTI’s stances on most things, if not all, and look up to Imran as a real hope for Pakistan, as a sincere leader, a philanthropist and humanist. The two things seem like opposites, which is why for a while I procrastinated writing this blog because it would mean choosing sides. Only, the traction is interesting, because I am clearly on both sides.

As for Imran, I see him as a proponent of human rights. He may not be the stereotypical human rights activist of Pakistan, and may not fit the niche group. But he stands up for the underdog, always. And that is what human rights work essentially is – to stand up for the marginalised and vulnerable communities – women, children, minorities, people in conflict zones, people suffering from injustice, people who don’t have money to pay hospital bills and send their children to good schools. The man stands up for social equality. His humanitarian work is a reflection of his belief in equal rights for all.

What then is the problem? Why won’t the human rights activists accept him and his work? They love Shaukat Khanum Hospital and Namal College, but certain things he said and did seem to have ruffled just the right (or left) feathers.

Being the advocate of both the devil and the angel (and I do not know who is who in this case), there are certain things at play here. For starters, while people like Edhi and Chiipa, and organisations like Alamgir Welfare Trust and even Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) social welfare wing’s efforts are lauded, they are seen as ‘humanitarian’ efforts. Human rights and their advocacy are seen as a different animal in Pakistani society, and over its history of more than six decades, a certain niche group of people have started being associated with this in the country. They are, in fact, seen as the stake holders of human rights. And with the package come certain pre-requisites. You have to be leftist, or left-off-centre, or at least completely secular, and be someone who does not bring religion into any talk of human rights.

I recall at a recent moot about women-friendly legislation where I was a panellist, a suggestion was floated that following the example of Indonesia, local Imams and clergy members be sensitised to women’s rights, and this be made a part of primary education. At this point, a very known and respected human rights activist who has contributed much to the country stood up in rage,

“What has religion got to do with this? Why must we bring God into everything?”

As much as we tried to explain that this could be done for all religious sects and leaders of minority communities could also be brought on board to fight evils like domestic violence, her reaction remained angry, till the organisers promised that the idea would be dropped.

Imran, in comparison, is clearly centrist in his approach. He cites examples from the life of the second righteous Caliph, Hazrat Umar (RA) and is clear that his dream is that “Pakistan should be an Islamic welfare state with equal rights for all”. In October this year, he dared to question the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) regarding where their funding comes from. Imran’s take is that anyone and everyone should be open to being questioned. But the reaction, not surprisingly, was “how dare he”, given the truly amazing work that has come out of HRCP for the people of Pakistan. This came as a retort to the HRCP saying that Imran and his party’s sit-ins are distracting from more important human rights issues. Add to it the very open issues between the Imran Khan camp and the Asma Jahangir camp. There is a history here, which I wish to leave aside. But the fact remains that this situation has added yet another dimension to the polarisation in Pakistani society.

The human rights camp remains unforgiving of Imran’s earlier stances on many issues, for example his earlier take on certain women-friendly legislations, or his openness to the idea of talking with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). His present softer stances are seemingly not enough for them to give him a chance and work hand in hand for a better future for Pakistanis.

This leaves people like me in a predicament, people who see sincerity on both sides; people who feel bridges should be built between both sides.

It is ironic that I am writing this a day after my paper published a report by human rights group Reprieve, stating that the CIA killed a whopping 221 people, including 103 children, in Pakistan in the hunt for just four men, and that 24 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times; missed strikes on these men killed 874 other people, and account for the 35% of all confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistani drone strikes. The humanist in me cannot write-off Imran as a humanitarian as well as a human rights activist, knowing that he took the strongest stance against “collateral damage” in drone attacks, which is a gross violation of human rights, and his work in the field of public health, education and his stand against injustice.

We live in times where things are neither simplistic nor black and white. If Pakistan has any hopes of uplifting the downtrodden in our society, the thing to do is to appreciate whatever good is being done by any one, whether from the left, the right or the centre. Imran has and is doing a lot of good for our people and stands up for their rights. He may not be your typical human rights activist, but he is one all right. One of the best.

Forsaken?: In Thar, depression claims what drought spares

Published: October 29, 2014

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: “Dhia Bheel was a beautiful young woman but always looked gloomy and frail. She couldn’t put up with hunger and domestic violence. She jumped into a well with her six-month-old child. I’ve witnessed two suicide cases in the last two months in my tiny village,” says Lado Meghwar, resident of village Meghi Jo Tar in Tharparkar.

Dozens of children have reportedly died of malnutrition in this drought-stricken desert district of Sindh this year alone. And psychiatrists believe the persisting famine is creating psychological disorders among the Tharis, leading to suicidal tendencies.

In the past 10 months, 40 people have committed suicide in Tharparkar, including two cases of mothers killing themselves along with their children, according to a report prepared by a local NGO, AWARE.

More worrisome are the two cases of minors committing suicide. Thirteen-year-old shepherd Savaee Ghazi Meghwar of Kasbo village, district Nagarparkar, killed himself when his parents did not give him his pocket money.

The second case narrated by Marro Meghwar, a resident of Chapar Din village, is of a boy called Raimal, son of Chaman, aged 12, who threw himself into a well some 20 days back. “The child was mentally challenged. With such poverty how could they have even considered treatment?”

Psychiatrist Dr Lakesh Kumar Khatri confirms that suicide cases are on the rise in Tharparkar, and he links it mainly to depression. With the drought in Tharparkar prevailing for a third consecutive year, there is much to be depressed about.

This affects women and children the most, according to Khatri. Seventy-five per cent of patients of mental illnesses here are females, he claims.

“Problems overlap. Abject poverty leads to malnutrition, which affects sanity. Even if I do try to counsel a patient, it’s useless because malnutrition will lead to mental challenges. Such cases are more prone to suicide,” says Khatri. “They laugh when doctors suggest they eat fruits. ‘Our standard diet is dried red chilies with roti’, they say.”

Because of poverty, most depression cases go undiagnosed. “They don’t have money to feed themselves. How can they commute to Umerkot where we hold our free clinics?”

Thari women are malnourished. Their average hemoglobin level is eight to 10, which means they are also anemic. And their problems keep multiplying. More and more Thari men are moving to cities to try and earn a living, leaving their women lonelier and sadder.

Conversion Disorder, a mental illness in which psychological illness starts producing physical symptoms, is also common among Thari women. The realisation of their plight is equally painful. “While this awakening is a good thing, it is also painful, because the Thari people are realising how far behind they are,” says one doctor.

The state, however, is in a state of denial. Dr Lekhraj, who works at the state-run hospital in Chachro, denies any of these deaths were due to suicide. MPA Mahesh Kumar endorses Dr Lekhraj: “Maybe the women slipped and fell” into the wells.

That is because many blame the government for the depressing state of affairs in Tharparkar. Defending his government’s report card, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah this week claimed in a speech in the provincial assembly that his administration has recently arranged wheat worth Rs2 billion for the drought-hit areas of Tharparkar.

Ironically, he denied anyone had died of hunger over the past five years, and also contradicted reports of an unusual increase in child deaths in Tharparkar. Unofficially, more than 100 drought-affected children reportedly died in the region this year – 32 in the month of February alone.

MPA Mahesh Kumar concedes the drought situation this year ‘is worse’ than 2013, but he denies poverty could be blamed for the deaths and depression. “Other reasons like illicit affairs and family feuds can also be a reason,” claims Kumar. “Malnourishment is not just a problem of Tharparkar. It exists in other parts of Sindh and in Balochistan too. But now the media magnifies even the smallest incidences.”

Officials say they are giving 50 kg of wheat, free of cost, to every family. But local NGO’s insist very few families ever received the entire 50kg allotted to them. With the government insisting all problems will be solved with a 50kg bag of flour, the future looks bleak for the people of this neglected part of Pakistan.

Suicide in numbers

• 40 is the number of cases of suicide in Tharparkar district in the first ten months of 2014.

• A tehsil-wise ratio of suicides shows that 42% of the cases were in Mithi, 23% were in Nagarparkar, 20% in Chachro and 12% in Islamkot.

• 50% of the cases were men and 50% were women and children.

(Source: AWARE)

The reasons for suicide in order of most cases to least

• Poverty and unemployment

• Family feuds

• Domestic violence

• Mental disorders

• Mismatched marriages

(Source: AWARE.)

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2014.