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Smiling in the Face of Odds: Interview with Mariam Khan

Mariam Khan is the Program Director of Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP). She has over 15 years of experience in the development sector. She has previously worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) managing refugee and relief programs, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and other local and international organizations.

In 2015, she wrote an assessment report titled “Women & the Fata Conflict: Unfulfilled Promises" highlighting the plight and trauma of IDP women living in camps and other areas after the military operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Recently, WRN-Pakistan sat down with Ms. Khan to talk about her experiences with the research report and working with IDP women.

What was the motivation behind writing a report on internally displaced women?

CAMP had been working in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps offering healthcare since 2009. So, we had access to speak to them directly and knew about their issues. The IDP crisis was a very big issue at that time. Though the return process to FATA had started when I did the report focusing on women, it was not too late to interview them and record their struggle.

Interestingly, while a lot of research had already been done or was being done on IDPs, there was little focusing on women’s experiences. Their lives had changed already and it was vital to know how much more their lives would change on return. How easy or difficult it would be for them to re-settle? I thought it was important to ask these questions. Additionally, as a woman I felt I could understand them a little better. I am grateful to CAMP for letting me work on this topic.

Do you think that report managed to garner the right response?

Not really! A lot has been written on IDPs, especially by the UN, but very few reports or research studies focused on women. In this regard, the research done by CAMP was different. We did not get the response that we anticipated, especially from the government.

The scope of the research report was also quite limited. Our access to the IDP camps in Bannu was restricted because we did not have permission to go there. At that time in Bannu IDP influx had just started. Even though IDP problems across the board were same, it would have been better if voices from those camps were included. If given an opportunity again, we would like to do it on a bigger scale.

Where are the research gaps regarding IPD women?

Gender based violence in displacement is definitely an issue that needs more research. We could have covered it in the report, but it is a very sensitive topic that requires individuals or organizations to have specialized skills to work on it. There are a few reports that touch on the subject, including WRN’s Community Conversations, but it needs more in-depth research.

We also need to learn more about how to positively engage women while they are displaced. There are educational and vocational training facilities available at camps, but they are limited and generally targeting younger girls. Older women need an outlet, a space to talk and share their problems. What mechanisms can be created for their psycho-social support? How can these women learn something and utilize their time constructively?

In your opinion, how this report can help in policy formulation for IDPs?

The report highlights several issues faced by IDPs across the board. Tents size and food packages are a common problem. Usually, the aid provided by the UN and the government assumes international family size standards of 4-5 people. A displaced family on average consists of 6-7 members, sometimes more for joint families. Tents are not large enough to meet the needs of most families, and food packages far too little to adequately feed everyone.

The report also highlights lack of documentation and space/privacy issues for women. The concept of privacy is not fully implemented in camps. There are no proper and covered washrooms for women to use safely. Many women are scared of going to washrooms in public or in the dark, resulting in widespread cases of Urinary Tract Infections(UTI). This is a critical issue from the displacement point of view.

What are your recommendations for human rights policy in regard to IDPs?

We need to have people looking at policies through a gender lens. That does not mean that we set-up a gender department and induct few staff members to fill the seats, show numbers, and be able to say we did. More qualified and female staff need to be appointed, and they be trained in applying a gender lens properly.

Additionally, a gendered lens needs to be applied in policy and strategy design. Women’s experiences and needs to be at the center of policy design, as the vast majority of displaced persons are women. We also need to be planning for displacement proactively, rather than waiting for disasters to strike and remain in a reactive cycle.

What is your most memorable experience from compiling this report?

The thing I still relish is the resilience of these women. The thing that fascinated me the most was their resolve to go on with their lives. I was inspired by their strength after having lost their homes, fleeing in the middle of the night amidst heavy bombing and shelling. They lost the freedom they had and lives they built.

The living conditions in the camps were difficult, yet they were able to have chats, laugh together, and support each other. This love for life makes you wonder that how privileged you are. There are so many things we take for granted in our lives. Experiences like these make you realize the blessings you have in your life.

What are your top three recommendations for the rehabilitation of IDPs especially IDP women?

Documentation need to be the top priority. A large flux of IDPs arrived from FATA and they didn’t have any document to support them. It was particularly difficult for women without a male family member. National identity cards, birth certificates or marriage certificates - any document that could register them in the national database - must be ensured.

Secondly, there must be opportunities for education or involvement in something positive and constructive. Women also need a supportive, safe space where they can talk about and share their fears, doubts and anxieties.

Lastly, some support system needs to be developed for urban IDPs. For all their flaws, camps get some resources. Urban IDPs do not get registered nor any assistance, resulting in their issues falling through the cracks. Recognition, protection, and assistance need to be provided to them as well.

How can civil society synergize it efforts to improve the state of IDPs?

Better follow-up by the various coordination committees can help a lot. There have been a lot of grievance redressal mechanisms many of civil society organizations and the UN, but there is not enough follow-up. With better follow-up and improved documentation, many of these issues can be resolved.

Identification of relevant stakeholders is of equal importance. More government representatives should be invited to attend these committees’ meetings.

Thank you, Ms. Khan, for your time and thoughtful insights. Click here to read Ms. Khan’s full report on IDP women titled “Women & the Fata Conflict: Unfulfilled Promises”.

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