MEERWALA, Pakistan — In the early hours of Tuesday, Aug. 3, Mukhtar Mai was awakened by the arrival of hundreds of villagers at her home. All were seeking refuge from the flood that was devastating villages and cities all over Pakistan.
She promptly roused the staff and volunteers of her self-made NGO, Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organization, and converted her entire property into a makeshift refugee camp.
For the villagers of Meerwala and the surrounding areas of rural Southern Punjab, the home of Mukhtar Mai is continually an oasis of safe haven.
Mukhtar Mai, now an international figure, gained her prominence as a champion of women’s rights in 2002 when she challenged the Pakistani gender status quo, demanding reparations for the violence and trauma of the state-sanctioned gang rape she suffered.
Where before women were expected to kill themselves if they experienced such an act of dishonor, Mukhtar rose to fight for the rights of not only herself, but also of all the Pakistani women living in oppression. She used the government funds allocated to her to open Mukhtar Mai’s Girls Model School, operating under the banner of “ending oppression through education.”
Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organization, or MMWO, now operates two girls’ schools, a school for boys, and a shelter home and resource center for battered women. The entire property, including the adjacent police station, was immediately opened to the hundreds of families from nearby villages whose homes had been devastated by the flood.
The women’s shelter, which had been created to house women fleeing violence and abuse and seeking the protection of Mukhtar Mai’s compassion, was opened to over twenty women and their accompanying children.
The woman and children who had been residing in the shelter before the crisis were safely relocated to Mukhtar’s personal home.
The boys’ school was completely converted into a shelter, with five to ten families crowding into each of the individual classrooms. As the steady stream of families continued to make their way to Mukhtar’s property throughout the day, the personal homes of her brothers and their families were additionally opened to the villagers.
Women with sacks of feed on their heads carried babies and pulled cattle through the downpour. Men carried cots and food, and a parade of donkeys packed with families’ entire meager possessions continued to process through the gates. “This is all we have left,” women continued to report to the staff of MMWO. “Our crops are ruined. Our houses are completely destroyed. This is all we have left.”
The dairy farm run by MMWO was emptied of its cattle, which were then tied outside in the rain along with the hundred or so livestock saved by the families from their flooded properties. Families then occupied the dairy stalls, crowding on top of piles of animal feed to keep warm. The rain outside continued to drum on.
Food became an immediate priority, and the adjacent police station was converted into an emergency feeding station. MMWO gathered as much food reserves as it could spare, and women and children waited patiently in the ceaseless rain for their family’s allocated share. Children carried plates of rice to their younger brothers and sisters, and women gathered the rice into buckets. Even the women’s own dupattas, or head scarves, served to carry the food back to the families crowded in the shelters.
More than 85 families took refuge on Mukhtar Mai’s property over the next few days, averaging five children each. Families came from as far away as ten kilometers south of Meerwala in the Muzaffargarh District where the villages were devastated by the floods. Families reported that their entire acreage of crops had been completely destroyed. In most of the cases, the families’ mud-brick houses had been ruined as well.
“We are a humanitarian organization,” MMWO’s National Coordinator Shafique Malik explained. “We have an obligation to help these families as much as we can.”
The compassion of Mukhtar Mai and her staff reaches far above and beyond the NGO’s mandate to promote women’s rights through education. MMWO shared all of the resources it had amassed in rural Pakistan to provide shelter and food to those in critical need.
However, food and petrol stores are sparse, and as the days continued with no relief from the government, resources were quickly drying up. The only assistance received by MMWO in its humanitarian efforts was rice rations provided by another local Pakistani NGO.
“There is only so much we can do,” Malik said. “It will take years to rebuild these communities.”
As the water level in the areas nearest Meerwala stabilized, Malik spearheaded the effort to assist those communities in the area of the organizations second girl’s school, located 30 kilometers away in Gabar Arani.
“There,” he said, “there are no NGOs, no government. No one is assisting those people. There are families sitting on their roofs, without communication, awaiting help.”
In Gabar Arani, the MMWO school will eventually have to be at least partially rebuilt due to damage from the floods. For now, however, the organization focused first and foremost on the humanitarian needs of the villagers.
To date, the flood has not reached the property of Mukhtar Mai and MMWO in Meerwala, although the organization is suffering from severe shortages of electricity. They continue to offer as much humanitarian assistance as possible to the surrounding communities in need.
Any inquiries or anyone wishing to make a donation to MMWO’s relief efforts and the surrounding Meerwala community can get information by going to: http://www.mukhtarmaimmwo.com or by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Kelly Holz is now serving as an MMWO volunteer in Meerwala through Tufts University’s Institute for Global Leadership and Human Rights Foundation NY, and will be serving as the Asylum Network Coordinator for Physicians for Human Rights in the fall. She can be contacted at email@example.com .