Flood victims across Pakistan have been returning home to villages where houses have been reduced to piles of mud and brick, farmland ravaged and streets reduced to swamps.
The family of Gulab Din, 60, returning to their house in a village near the town of Kashmore in Sindh Province after spending over a month in neighbouring Balochistan, is lucky.
“Two rooms in our house are still standing. At least we have some shelter,” he told IRIN as his extended family of nine gathered in the house. But while Gulab and his family are back home, their three buffaloes are not. This means the family, which sold milk to earn a living, now has no means of income.
“I have borrowed some money from a relative, but that Rs 30,000 [US$350] won’t take us very far at all, what with the house to repair, the vegetables to re-plant and some basic items like clothes and kitchen utensils to buy,” Gulab told IRIN. “I need buffaloes to earn a living, but how am I to get them?”
Gulab and his family’s needs are acute. To try and meet them, he is considering allowing his eldest son, Matloob Ahmed, 14, to take up work. “It will only be for a short time, till we can get back on our feet. Then he can go back to school. I have heard some people have visited areas here to offer good jobs to boys.”
Assessments of damage are still being made, but the National Disaster Management Authority says over 1.9 million houses have been damaged or destroyed leaving over eight million people homeless.
“Problems of child protection, such as child labour, will arise after the relief phase, a little later on as people return home,” Smaranda Popa, chief of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) child protection section, told IRIN. “When they have nothing but say 10 children, exploitation is likely. Some may be sent to orphanages, some put to work and so on.”
Popa said UNICEF was currently engaged in assessments and analysis to work out a strategy with the government and gauge needs. “Experiences from other disasters and logical analysis tell us this is always a problem, no matter where the calamity occurs,” she said.
Media reports have indicated children from flood-hit regions are being promised lucrative jobs, taken away from families, and then being used for sex work.
Threat to education
“The risk certainly exists of an increase in child labour, exploitation and there is a threat to education,” Zaheer Hassan at the Islamabad-based Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, told IRIN. He said data was being collected on these issues, as so far the focus had been on basic needs such as “rescue and the provision of food”.
UNICEF says that of the 20 million people affected by floods, 10 million are children, 2.8 million of them aged under five.
An increase in child labour was noted after previous natural calamities such as the 2005 earthquake which hit parts of northern Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
There are fears this pattern could be repeated. “Children need protection from all kind of risks,” said Hassan.
One issue is that of education. “I will need my children to help restore the land. I don’t think we can afford to send them to school till that happens,” said Hassan Ali, 40, father of three from a village near the town of Ghotki in Sindh. He is not sure how long that will take.
A district administration official in Jacobabad, who asked not to be named, said: “The way I see things people will really have no choice but to put every family member to work, including children.” He said though government compensation schemes were being rolled out, these were “faulty and would help only some”.
Hassan Ali pointed out that for his, and other families, the priority was to get back to some measure of normalcy. “Everything else, including schooling, is not the main issue right now,” he said.
Khurram Masood, media manager for Save the Children, UK, told IRIN from Islamabad: “There is a risk of child labour in flood affected areas, especially as in many of these parts people are extremely poor in the first place. It is impossible for now to put a number on how great the risk is. Other risks to children come from the breakdown of the education system and from health dangers.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]