Pakistan: Aid agencies' dispute with Bagh local authorities rumbles on

ISLAMABAD, 24 May 2007 (IRIN) - The international aid community has resumed its operations in quake-affected Bagh district in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, but a dispute continues between aid workers and the Bagh local authorities over restrictions on female employees.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the isolated Bagh area said their work was being hampered by the so-called Bagh United People's Forum, a 33-member group of religious and community leaders which has issued a "code of conduct" effectively placing restrictions on how local female aid workers can be deployed.

"If the NGOs work under such a code that's fine. Otherwise, there could be further problems," Mir Akmar, the group's chairman, told IRIN from Bagh. He alluded to a number of alleged incidents in which local girls employed by NGOs working in the area had been taken outside the area and sexually exploited.

Oxfam responds

Farhana Stocker, country director for the international NGO Oxfam, said: "Having a local 'code of conduct' that prohibits and denies locally qualified women from employment opportunities contravenes organisational principles that many of us subscribe to."

"It's not about past, present or future, it's about how we have worked in Pakistan for the past 20 plus years - and continue to do so in other parts of the country today, some of them in much more traditional and remote areas than Bagh," she said, adding: "Why should we have a separate code of conduct for Bagh when we don't have anything like that anywhere else in the country and never had?"

She said most international organisations were already mandated to ensure local women and men had equal employment opportunities as long as they fulfilled basic competencies and expertise.

Mercy Corps "very concerned"

"We are very concerned about the safety of our female staff. Not being able to engage them in mobilisation activities in our communities is a serious limitation," Faiza Janmohammed, country director for the international NGO Mercy Corps, said in Islamabad.

Proposed restrictions

One senior Pakistani government official told IRIN he knew of specific incidents in which local girls had been taken to hotels in the nearby hill station of Murree and to Islamabad ostensibly for training, only to be sexually abused.

To prevent that happening again, from now on if a local girl working for an NGO needed to be taken outside the Bagh area for any type of training or workshop, the NGO in question would first need to seek the approval of the local authorities, Akmar said.

Moreover, in the event that the girl or woman needed to stay overnight, she would need to be accompanied by a male family member, he added.

Such conditions are problematic and could set a dangerous precedent for other local pressure groups with similar demands, an aid worker said.

No real agreement

But no real agreement on such conditions has been reached, despite efforts by the government to intervene, a fact, which could lead to further problems, say aid groups.

"There will not be a code of conduct, but rather agreed principles of engagement which we are discussing with local authorities and community stakeholders," Raabya Amjad, a public information officer for the United Nations Resident Coordinator's Office in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said.

Whatever the outcome, aid workers on the ground want the matter settled now.

Local contracts

"These issues are actually being promoted by people with vested interests in the work we are doing and not the actual beneficiaries of Bagh," one non-governmental organization (NGO) worker on the ground who preferred to remain anonymous, said, referring to demands for local contracts.

Operations "slowly resuming"

"The UN is slowly resuming its operations this week and hopes to be fully operational soon," said Amjad. Her comments followed an earlier decision taken in collaboration with local authorities and community leaders in the area - and after the government pledged that the safety and security of all aid workers in the area was fully assured.

The decision was taken just over a week after 49 NGOs and UN agencies suspended more than US$82 million-worth of projects and activities in the remote mountain district due to a spate of security incidents involving members of the humanitarian community. These culminated in the deliberate burning of a local UN staff member's house on 7 May - an act, which prompted the UN to suspend its operations two days later.