Among Pakistan quake's fallen structures: barriers for girls

Attending school for the first time is somewhat magical for Niaz Begum, one of the survivors of the devastating Oct. 8, 2005, South Asia earthquake. Urdu class is her favorite, the 12-year-old says with dancing green eyes, using the ruffle of a tent door to veil her embarrassment.

While her school is simple - a tent and chalkboard - the smile it brings to the children attending is symbolic of a quiet revolution.

Like Niaz, many girls from this valley near the quake's epicenter used to spend afternoons working the fields, just as their mothers did before them. Cycles of poverty combined with strict religious mores have meant a literacy rate of less than 2 percent for women and girls in this North West Frontier Province.

But now hundreds of girls are attending school for the first time, learning math and science, Urdu and English in tents at the Maira Camp, a relief center where some 20,000 people live. Many parents, when presented with the option, eagerly agreed to send their daughters.

"Whether they send their girls [to school] is largely an economic reason," says Sara Lim, an education adviser for Save the Children USA, which is teaching nearly 2,000 girls throughout the quake zone. She explains that many parents were not sending their girls to school before the earthquake because they needed them to work. But life in the camps has lifted many of those economic restraints.

Another reason they were kept out of the classroom before the quake was the "lack of female teachers," Ms. Lim adds, explaining that parents would not allow them to be educated by male teachers in classrooms where boys were present.

The fault line of October's quake encompasses some of the most conservative areas of largely Sunni Muslim Pakistan, where the rigid observance of purdah, a segregation of the sexes, has deprived many women of education, healthcare, and their own means of livelihood. Thousands of women have now been widowed or maimed by the quake, thousands of girls injured and orphaned, rendering even more acute their challenge of building a new life.

But there is an emerging silver lining. Many relief agencies have begun highlighting the "unexpected dividends" afforded to women and young girls in the wake of the tragedy. The earthquake, they say, has opened up the nearly impenetrable systems of gender segregation that poverty and religion have created.

Across the quake-affected areas, girls like Niaz are seeing their first schools, while their mothers are learning sewing and math skills. Many women are visiting doctors for the first time, learning how to take better care of themselves and their children. But perhaps most important of all is the growing sense of self-reliance among the women, many who will have to cope on their own.

Ruqia, who is 17, lost her ability to walk due to injuries sustained in the quake. But she has not lost hope. On a recent afternoon in Islamabad, she sat in her wheelchair with her arms out to the side, leading 45 other paraplegic women in an exercise routine.

Like Ruqia, who uses only one name, they come from the devastated area of Kashmir; most are unmarried, some are widowed or engaged. "Before I could not sit. I learned how to sit in the wheelchair, how to dress myself, how to exercise," says Ruqia, adding with a smile that her fiancé visits her every week.

"When they came here they were ... drained of energy. Some of them were suicidal," describes Nafeesa Khattak, owner of the Melody Relief and Rehab Center, a home for paraplegic women. "Now they have future plans. They've been empowered - by the end they'll be able to take care of a household," she says.

Changes like these, observers say, are challenging traditionally prescribed roles and rules for women. Perhaps the most subtle but powerful outcome is the community that women like Ruqia have found with other women.

"Men did not let women socialize with other women," points out Rukhsana, who uses only one name and works with Save the Children USA in the Maira Camp. For weeks, Rukhsana has gone tent to tent encouraging women, with permission from their husbands, to attend classes at a sewing center. Social spaces like this have given hundreds of women the first community they have ever known - even if it is tightly shrouded behind the walls of a tent - allowing them to dream beyond the boundaries set for them. Rukhsana says some of the women plan to create their own sewing centers when they return home, not only to make money, but to socialize with their new friends.

Exposure to facilities like this is also fostering something of a shift among many women, observers say. When they return home, women expect the same opportunities to be available that they received in the camps, particularly healthcare.

Michelle Caughey, an American doctor who worked in Bana, a town high above Allai Valley, will never forget one patient who visited her hospital.

"She walked for hours to get here, not for treatment, but because she had never seen a doctor before and wanted to know what one looked like," Ms. Caughey says.

She and other doctors say women in these areas have never had access to healthcare because female doctors have been absent, while religious sensibilities prevented them from being treated by a man.

"They were depending on old traditional methods," says Haris Ahmed, health manager at Save the Children USA's Bana hospital. "The breakthrough with our facility is it's the first time they have access to a female doctor."

Dr. Ahmed says his team plans to train female health workers to continue the effort, because women are demanding that healthcare be made a permanent part of their landscape.

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