A new road brings uncountable benefits for Swat women
In the highly male dominated society of Swat district in Pakistan’s northwest, women’s need for mobility is often underestimated. Nor are their voices heard when they demand their right to access health, education, markets and workplaces. Shakaray village, Swat, was one such village. For many years, the only path connecting it to the nearest road consisted of a muddy 1.8 kilometre stretch of ruts and potholes. It was virtually impassable for vehicles, and difficult even for pedestrians to navigate. This had severe impacts on Shakaray’s women, who found themselves cut off from the outside world.
This often led to tragedy. One woman, Amina Begum, related her sister’s story: “Gul Shahida had given birth to a baby boy in Manglawar hospital. The doctor discharged her after delivery, confirming she was all right. As we were returning from hospital over the bumpy, muddy pathway, my sister had post-partum haemorrhage. This triggered her death. Four days later, the baby also died.”
In 2017, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with the Saudi Fund for Development, supported the construction of a new link road for Shakaray. Community members were closely involved in the construction process and its oversight, with villagers trained to oversee its technical aspects and ensure high quality. Although cultural constraints prevented the village women from being closely involved in the construction process, they have already begun to reap its benefits in terms of access to education, employment and healthcare.
Shabnam Begum described how, in the old days, she once had to be rushed to the hospital. Six men had to carry her on a rope bed, a two-hour journey which was both painful and embarrassing. “But now, with this constructed road, we can find a vehicle on the doorstep and reach the main road in 10 minutes.” Moreover, transportation costs have fallen by more than 50 percent.
Women are also reaping economic benefits. Bakht Zarmina heads a household and described how her life has changed. “I used to work as a maidservant in the house of Khans [local influentials] to earn two meals a day for my family,” she said. She described her difficult daily commute of four kilometres over the path. “I used to get very tired. In the winter and rainy season it was a hundred times tougher and more dangerous. I got seriously ill.” She was forced to walk to the nearest hospital and the difficult terrain caused her to fall and fracture her hand. With her health, Bakht Zarmina lost her job. But today, with the new road, she has been able to find work an easy commute away.
A 13 year old girl, Amina Bibi, related: “It was a very sad day in my life when I completed my primary school two years back.” The nearest high school was a considerable distance from the village and without transport, it was considered too far and unsafe for a girl to attend. Amina Bibi was forced to drop out of school aged only 11.
When the new link road was constructed, however, it was finally possible for vehicles to reach Shakaray, and Amina Bibi immediately enrolled in Grade 6 to catch up on her education. “Now we have hired a vehicle to pick and drop us from the doorstep. My other class fellows also accompany me. It is so comforting for my family members that I am continuing my education without any hassle or security hazards.”
Natural disasters including floods, and conflict have severely impacted on local livelihoods and infrastructure in Swat district, and had a profound, largely unseen, impact on women and girls. Funded by the Saudi Fund for Development, UNDP supports the restoration and rehabilitation of small infrastructure projects such as link roads, bridges and water channels to improve livelihoods, economic integration and access to essential services such as hospitals and schools. Over 1 million Swat residents have benefited from these projects since the project began in 2011.
- Over 1 million people have benefited from 761 community basic infrastructure schemes.
- In remote, mountainous region of Swat, 107 link roads and 284 street pavements reduced the time and cost of accessing schools, hospital, markets and other basic services.
- Seventy community organizations were formed or re-activated, including 16 comprising women.