Pakistan

Pakistan earthquake puts women, kids at risk

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By Liz O'Neill

In the days following a deadly earthquake in a remote region of Pakistan, women and children are facing severe health hazards, according to assessments by Catholic Relief Services' emergency response teams on the ground.

Emergency relief workers from CRS and Caritas Internationalis have been conducting assessments in the hard-hit region of Ziarat in southwestern Pakistan since the October 29 earthquake. It is estimated the 6.4-magnitude quake killed 225 people, injured hundreds more, and left nearly 15,000 homeless.

"The aftershocks and tremors following the earthquake made the environment even more traumatic for people on the ground. Those whose mud and timber homes survived are terrified to go back inside. Many families, including those with young children, spent several nights sleeping outside in freezing temperatures," reports Darren Hercyk, CRS country representative in Pakistan.

Women and young children are especially vulnerable. CRS relief workers found that because female doctors are unavailable in the region, many of the injured women, who are not permitted by custom to be treated by male doctors, haven't received any medical care. Nursing mothers are unable to breastfeed their babies due to symptoms from the cold. Because of the freezing overnight temperatures, many children are developing head and chest infections; some are beginning to show symptoms of pneumonia.

CRS is responding with emergency shelter, hygiene kits for women, and essential family living supplies including stoves and utensils, water containers, and fuel for heating and cooking.

"The most urgent needs, in addition to medical care, are shelter and food. But given the onset of freezing temperatures in this mountainous region, winterized tents are only a temporary solution. We're exploring longer-term shelter options for families whose homes were completely destroyed, and who will need greater protection from the harsh winter weather," says Hercyk.

While local humanitarian agencies in Pakistan have concluded that this is a small-scale emergency, the loss and devastation will take some time to overcome. Close to 95 percent of the mud and timber huts around Ziarat were completely destroyed, dozens of livestock animals perished, schools and government buildings collapsed, and there is currently no electricity or gas in the region.

The tremors affected the provincial capital of Quetta in the Baluchistan province near the Afghan border. CRS has an office with 50 staff in Quetta in addition to offices in Islamabad, Muzaffarabad, Menserha and Bisham. No CRS staff members were injured in the earthquake.

CRS has worked in Pakistan since 1954 supporting emergency relief and long-term development programs in some of the most isolated and impoverished communities. It was one of the first humanitarian agencies on the ground to respond to the devastating earthquake in October of 2005, which killed more than 75,000 people and left 3.5 million people homeless in northern Pakistan.

Liz O'Neill is CRS' communications officer for Europe and the Middle East. She is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.