Women Human Rights Defenders on the Frontlines of Crisis: Aurat Foundation

WLP’s Partner in Pakistan Supports Victims of Climate Disaster

During humanitarian crises—whether the result of pandemics, violent conflict, or climate disasters—local women's rights organizations are often the first to fill in gaps in aid and services for the most vulnerable communities. The reasons for this are manifold. Women rights organizations are already alert to structural inequalities that can lead to women’s and girls’ needs being overlooked. Moreover, organizations that promote equality for women and children in their families and communities are able to rapidly identify and respond to challenges facing marginalized groups that may not be immediately apparent to governments or outside aid organizations.

Aurat Flood Relief

Participants discuss how to involve women in climate action at WLP/Aurat Foundation workshop in January 2023.

Over the past decades, the women’s rights organizations that comprise the WLP partnership have frequently found themselves on the frontlines of humanitarian disasters and have pivoted to address the emergency at hand. One such organization, WLP’s partner in Pakistan, sprung into action last year when devastating floods covered nearly one third of the country in water. The Aurat Foundation quickly established its Motherland Flood Relief Campaign for women and children in desperate need of clean water, food, medicines, and hygiene products.

Last month we followed-up with Aurat Foundation coordinator, Rabeea Hadi, about the organization’s flood relief programming, and how women and girls in particular were impacted. In our exchange, Rabeea underscored that the climate crisis in Pakistan is a global concern and that no nation is free from the harm caused by our warming planet. But at its core, she explained, the climate crisis is about the suffering of the people who are bearing the brunt of its worst catastrophes, and those people are disproportionately women:

As we talk about climate solutions and global commitments, we shall never forget that at the heart of every decision, every agreement, every action, there are people whose lives depend on our choices. Women in Pakistan, in particular, bear a disproportionate burden of climate impacts. They are the caregivers, the farmers, and the builders of communities. Their strength and contributions cannot be understated. –Rabeea Hadi

Aurat Flood Relief 2

Aurat Foundation provides information and resources to community members impacted by the August 2022 flooding.

Aurat Foundation has one of the largest rights-based networks of community organizations in Pakistan. Over the last 40 years, the Aurat Foundation has established volunteer grassroots Community Action Committees (CACs) in nearly every one of Pakistan’s 170 districts, which welcome the participation of both men and women in promoting citizen engagement and political participation. Rabeea explained that in addition to the CACs, three years ago Aurat Foundation began formalizing Women Leaders Volunteer Groups (WLVGs) that are now active in 45 districts. 

Following the 2022 flooding, Aurat engaged its CACs and WLVGs in affected areas to help assess peoples’ immediate needs and coordinate Aurat’s relief efforts. In collaboration with its volunteer networks, Aurat held dozens of dialogues and meetings with local women, particularly pregnant women, to ensure their voices, priorities, and perspectives on the crisis were being heard and their needs met. She shared that most of Aurat’s flood-relief volunteers were women.

Most of Aurat Foundation’s work in the affected areas was carried out by women volunteers who worked day and night to reach out to affected vulnerable populations and to help us raise funds for the relief work. Our local women’s groups stepped in to help with distributing food, medicine, mosquito nets, water purification tablets, soap and towels, sanitary pads, diapers, dry milk, and clothing for women and children. Their first priority was moving people to safe places, and then providing them with relief essentials. –Rabeea Hadi

Rabeea described how, as a result of the flooding, many women and girls faced additional challenges that needed a gender-sensitive approach.

Our volunteers noted that women's health needs, particularly those related to reproductive health, were often overlooked during relief efforts. Access to menstrual hygiene products, maternity care, and safe spaces for delivery and breastfeeding posed continuous challenges. Displacement and overcrowded living conditions put women and girls at greater risk of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and assault. Lack of lighting and privacy in relief camps compounded safety concerns. Moreover, traditional gender roles and expectations sometimes limited women's mobility, making it difficult for them to access relief distribution points, health services, and information about available resources. Women who were employed in informal sectors and daily wage labor experienced financial vulnerability due to the disruption of income-generating activities during the floods. And girls' education, already facing challenges in certain areas, suffered further setbacks due to disrupted schools, lack of facilities, and the need for girls to contribute to household tasks and caregiving. –Rabeea Hadi

At the time of the flooding, civil society organizations in Pakistan were struggling for survival. Strict government policies, complicated registration processes, and lack of adequate funding hampered the establishment of new CSOs and threatened the sustainability of existing ones.  As a result, the Aurat Foundation  could not formally establish structured rescue and recovery programming in the flood-affected areas. So instead the organization turned its attention to providing basic necessities in regions that were particularly hard hit, paying special attention to the physical, health, and welfare needs of women and girls. “Our process was to first rely on the Aurat Foundation network to identify regions and communities most in need. Teams from our organization would then visit the areas and enlist volunteers to help us distribute the  essentials, which included cash and in-kind services, as well as groceries and health products,” said Rabeea. “After helping to move individuals and families to safer locations, we would distribute aid.”

Aurat Flood 3

Aurat Foundation staff members and volunteers distribute resources and organize disaster response.

While Aurat Foundation would normally be committing its resources to advancing women’s rights, women’s leadership and empowerment, and ending violence against women, following the floods last year its Peshawar office used its funds to distribute seeds, solar panels for fans and lights, clothing and bedding, stove fuel, household goods, medicines, and mosquito nets, as well as cash grants. In Sindh province, the organization supported relief activities in some of the worst hit districts including Thatta, Sukkur, Badin, and Dadu. As the winter season approached, many families were still living outside in makeshift, temporary shelters. In Balochistan Province, Aurat Foundation provided families with blankets, bed sheets, winter clothes, mosquito nets, and skin disease medicines, along with food rations.

WLP asked what message Rabeea would bring to the United Nations and the member states gathering to address climate change at COP29. Rabeea responded with a reminder that we share one planet, and called on the international community to prioritize human life over politics.

The challenges we face are not isolated incidents; they are a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of our world. The floods, droughts, and extreme weather events that have struck Pakistan reverberate far beyond its borders, reminding us that climate change respects no boundaries and spares no one.

Climate change is not just a matter of statistics and data; it's a lived reality. It's the desperate cries of farmers who see their lands destroyed and their crops wither. It's the tears of mothers struggling to provide clean water to their children amidst rising scarcity. It's the perseverance of women walking longer distances to collect firewood due to deforestation, and the resilience of girls who strive for an education in the face of disrupted schooling.

The international community's role in addressing these challenges is paramount and nations need to collaborate beyond borders, transcending political divisions, to channel resources, knowledge, and technology where they are needed most. I would highlight the importance of empowering local communities, especially women, with the tools to adapt, innovate, and become agents of change. –Rabeea Hadi

Aurat Foundation Strategies and Lessons Learned: 

Recommendations for governments and NGOS to ensure women’s rights are protected and their needs are met in disaster response and recovery.

Short-Term Strategies:

Awareness and Fundraising: Women's rights activists can leverage their platforms to raise awareness about the immediate needs of flood-affected communities in Pakistan. They can organize online campaigns, webinars, and social media initiatives to disseminate information and raise funds for emergency relief efforts.

Mobilizing Supplies: Activists can coordinate donation drives to collect essential relief supplies, such as clean water, hygiene kits, clothing, and non-perishable food items. These supplies can be shipped to local organizations working on the ground.

Advocacy and Pressure: By using their influence, women's rights activists can engage with governments and international organizations to prioritize flood relief efforts in Pakistan. They can put pressure on authorities to ensure that women's specific needs and rights are addressed in relief programs.

Long-Term Strategies:

Women-Centered Development: Women's rights activists can advocate for and support long-term development projects that prioritize women's empowerment and resilience. This includes initiatives that promote women's economic opportunities, education, and leadership in disaster management.

Capacity Building: Offering training and capacity-building programs for women in flood-affected areas can empower them with skills related to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. This ensures that women have a voice in decision-making processes.

Sustainable Livelihoods: Women's rights activists can collaborate with local communities to develop sustainable livelihood options for women, such as vocational training, microfinance support, and access to markets.

Advocacy for Policy Change: Activists can engage in advocacy campaigns to influence policies that address the specific vulnerabilities of women in disaster situations. This includes gender-responsive disaster management plans and women-inclusive climate change policies.

Networking and Exchange: Establishing networks and exchanges between women's rights activists from different regions can facilitate the sharing of best practices, lessons learned, and innovative approaches to disaster relief and recovery.

Lessons Learned

1. Early Warning Systems are Essential: The floods reinforced the need for robust early warning systems that can effectively predict and communicate impending disasters. CSOs can collaborate with authorities to strengthen these systems and ensure timely alerts to at-risk communities.

2. Gender-Sensitive Approaches are Vital: The floods highlighted the disproportionate impact on women and girls. As Pakistan is the eighth most affected (by climate change) country in the world, these disasters are predicted to be the new normal for the country. CSOs should work towards creating better and more efficient mechanisms, addressing the unique needs and vulnerabilities of all members of the community, and fostering gender equality in disaster response and recovery efforts.

3. Community Resilience is a Priority: Building community resilience is crucial. CSOs can play a pivotal role in empowering communities to develop skills, knowledge, and resources that enhance their ability to cope with and recover from disasters.

4. Collaborative Partnerships Multiply Impact: The floods showcased the power of collaboration. CSOs can amplify their impact by forming partnerships with government agencies, international organizations, and local communities. 

5. Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation: The floods were a stark reminder of the increasing climate-related risks. CSOs must mainstream climate change adaptation strategies into their programs, focusing on sustainable practices, disaster risk reduction, and long-term resilience.

6. Communication is Key: Effective communication is paramount during crises. CSOs can enhance communication strategies, utilizing diverse channels to disseminate accurate information, educate communities, and engage with the public and donors to mobilize maximum support.

7. Holistic Approach to Relief and Recovery: The floods underscored the importance of a holistic approach to relief and recovery efforts. CSOs should consider not only immediate needs but also long-term rehabilitation, livelihood restoration, and sustainable development.

8. Capacity Building for Local Action: Empowering local communities through capacity-building initiatives equips them to take a more active role in disaster preparedness and response. CSOs can play a pivotal role in facilitating these efforts.

9. Donor Coordination and Transparency: Effective donor coordination and transparent resource allocation are essential for efficient relief efforts. CSOs can advocate for transparent and accountable funding mechanisms, ensuring that resources reach those in need.

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