Zebunnisa Bibi and other flood-displaced Pakistani women forced to live in close proximity to unrelated men for the first time in their lives – Copyright AFP Arif ALI
The smell of decay hangs over a makeshift camp in southern Pakistan, where hundreds of locals have taken refuge from devastating monsoon floods that have submerged almost a third of the country.
In the province of Punjab, dozens of tents are camped around a small rural railway station, the only land on the water’s horizon, accessible only by a narrow road.
The smell is a heady mixture of rotting vegetation, sunken crops, leftover food and garbage, and the accumulated excrement of the hundreds of people and livestock that have gathered there.
“There is no place to shower or go to the toilet,” said Zebunnisa Bibi, who was forced to flee with her family two weeks ago when flood waters flooded her village.
Similar tent cities have sprouted like mushrooms in the south and west of the country. The worst flooding in the country’s history spanned an area the size of Britain and affected 33 million people – one in seven Pakistanis.
The lack of functioning toilets in these camps is one of the most serious health problems for everyone, but especially for women and girls.
Pakistan’s rural areas are home to extremely conservative Muslim communities, and for the first time in their lives, many displaced women have to live in close proximity to unrelated men.
“We used to live behind a veil, but God removed it for us,” Zebunnisa said, referring to the strict gender segregation practiced in rural Pakistan.
– “Deeply ashamed” –
She said she was “deeply ashamed” of having to defecate outdoors, especially after she caught a man watching her as she lowered her shalwar kameez behind a tree.
Shamin Bibi expressed similar sentiments.
“Where can I send my daughters alone? When we squat down to relieve ourselves, we are afraid that someone might come.”
Swarms of flies and mosquitoes exacerbate suffering, creating an environment ripe for outbreaks of disease and infection.
Some women stopped going into flood waters to urinate after they developed a rash.
Ehsan Ayaz, a volunteer doctor who arrived at the Fazilpur camp while visiting AFP, said the lack of toilets was a “primary reason” for the rise in cases of skin infections and stomach flu, which he treated.
Shamin and her daughters now drink as little water as possible during the day, preferring to spend hours in discomfort rather than having to pee where they can be seen.
As the sun sets and darkness descends on the camp, the women seek a secluded spot away from the flickering fires.
They take turns on duty and warn of any encroachment.
“I don’t even know what we can do if someone decides to come and take advantage of us,” Shamin said.
There is another threat as well.
At night, according to Shamin, “snakes and scorpions come out of the water.”