Hindu Woman Doctor Confident of Election In Pakistan Polls

Asia-Pacific, Democracy, Editors’ Choice, Education, Featured, Freedom of Expression, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population, Religion, TerraViva United Nations, Women in Politics, Women’s Health

Women in Politics

On the campaign trail: Dr Saveera Parkash, a nominee for the Pakistan People’s Party. She is the first Hindu woman to run in Pakistan's general election Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

On the campaign trail: Dr Saveera Parkash, a nominee for the Pakistan People’s Party. She is the first Hindu woman to run in Pakistan’s general election Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

PESHAWAR, Jan 18 2024 (IPS) – A woman medical graduate from the Hindu community is making waves, as she is the first minority woman to contest the Pakistan Parliamentary election for a general seat, and she does so in the face of deep-rooted religious traditions and wealthy political opponents.

Dr Saveera Parkash, a nominee of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for the February 8 polls, is sure of her victory despite her religion.

“I have been witnessing the support that I am getting from the Muslim-dominated district of Buner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province,” Parkash told IPS in an interview. 

“My slogan is addressing issues of pollution, women’s empowerment, gender equality, female representation, and their health issues, in addition to ensuring respect for all religions,” she elaborated.

Born to a Christian mother and Hindu father, she has lived in a Muslim-dominated community; therefore, interfaith harmony is on her wishlist.

“Interfaith harmony is extremely significant because we have seen enmity among different religious sects on flimsy grounds.”

“We have to inculcate a sense of brotherhood among all schools of thought and pave the way for lasting peace in the area. We have to respect our religious places and shun differences, as all religions advocate peace and harmony,” she says.

Candidates in Buner, one of the 36 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that remained thick with militants from 2007 to 2010, are likely to witness a hard contest as the women and youngsters have shown support for the first-ever minority female candidate.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, one of Pakistan’s four provinces, has 145 elected members, 115 regular seats, 26 reserved for women, and 4 for non-Muslims.

Pakistan is home to 4.4 million Hindus, which is 2.4 percent of the total population.

Her father, a medical doctor and late leader of the PPP and twice Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by militants in December 2007 in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, inspire her, she says.

“While my ideal is Mother Teresa, my main focus will be women’s education. The overall literacy rate is 48 percent, but only 25 percent of females are literate; therefore, I want to spread awareness about the importance of women’s education,” she says.

Additionally, it is very important to end favoritism and nepotism and ensure merit in the appointment of teachers, especially women.

After completing medical education in July 2022, she saw the issues women visiting hospitals faced and decided to enter politics instead of continuing her career as a doctor, as she believed issues needed to be resolved at the policy level.

“We need more women doctors, nurses, and paramedics to encourage female patients to visit hospitals. Currently, the number of female health workers is extremely low, due to which most of the women don’t come to hospitals because they don’t want to be seen by male doctors,” she says.

“My big advantage is that I belong to a middle-class family, and the people will vote for me because I am approachable to my electorate.”

The promotion of women’s rights is her main objective.

“We have to scale up awareness regarding women’s rights to property inheritance and their right to education. I sense victory in the polls, as I know the people listen to me and would reject opponents for their bright future.”

So, how does she feel the run-up to the election is going?

“In our district, 75 percent of voters are under 30, and they are well-informed about the issues they are facing. I may be lacking wisdom and knowledge compared to senior politicians, but my sincerity will lead to my success,” says the 25-year-old, who routinely wears a headscarf.

Because she is trying to reach a young electorate, her campaigning includes the wide use of social media, apart from the traditional approaches of public meetings and house-to-house canvassing.

Highlighting corruption is also part of her election campaign.

At the moment, she is concentrating on a smooth run-up so she can win popular support in her constituency

“Voters in my constituency call me ‘sister’ and ‘daughter,’ which gives me immense strength,” she said.

Parkash said she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, Oam Prakash, a retired doctor, and serve the people.

Securing a space for women is vital for development, as they have been suppressed and neglected in all areas.

She said “serving humanity is in my blood” due to her medical background, highlighting that her dream to become an elected legislator stemmed from having experienced poor management and helplessness in government hospitals as a doctor.

Most people in the area endorse her candidacy, regardless of her Hinduism or political affiliation. Voters appreciate her bravery for challenging traditional policies

The Election Commission of Pakistan makes it mandatory for all political parties to award 5 percent of seats to women in general seats.

Political analyst Muhammad Zahir Shah, at the University of Peshawar, said that Parkash has created history by contesting the general election.

“We have been seeing women becoming members of the assembly on reserved seats. They don’t contest elections but are nominated by parties on the basis of the seats they win in the election,” Shah said.

In the past, some women have fought elections, but they were Muslim; therefore, they don’t draw as much media and public attention, but the case of Parkash is unprecedented.

She is well educated and belongs to the Hindu community while standing for vote in an area where 95 percent of the voters are Muslims.

“She is contesting on the PPP’s ticket, which isn’t a popular political party, but it seems that she will make her presence felt during the electioneering,” Shah said. Already, she has hit headlines, and if the election takes place in a fair and transparent manner, there is a greater likelihood that she will emerge victorious,” he said.

IPS UN Bureau Report


Amidst a Horrendous 2023, Civil Society is Fighting Back Society

Armed Conflicts, Biodiversity, Civil Society, Climate Change, Climate Change Justice, COP28, Economy & Trade, Education, Environment, Featured, Global, Green Economy, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, TerraViva United Nations


TORONTO, Canada, Dec 22 2023 (IPS) – The year 2023 has brought so much tragedy, with incomprehensible loss of lives, whether from wars or devastating ‘natural’ disasters, while our planet has seen yet more records broken as our climate catastrophe worsens.

And so as the clock ticks towards the (mostly western) New Year, readers are traditionally subjected by media outlets like ours to the ‘yearender’ – usually a roundup of main events over the previous 12 months, one horror often overshadowed by the next.

Farhana Haque Rahman

So forgive us if for 2023 IPS takes a somewhat different approach, highlighting how humanity can do better, and how the big depressing picture should not obscure the myriad small but positive steps being taken out there.

COP28, the global climate conference held this month in Dubai, could neatly fit the ‘big depressing’ category. Hosted by a petrostate with nearly 100,000 people registered to attend, many of them lobbyists for fossil fuels and other polluters, it would be natural to address its outcomes with scepticism.

However, while Yamide Dagnet, Director for Climate Justice at the Open Society Foundations, described COP28 as “imperfect”, she said it also marked “an important and unprecedented step forward in our ‘course correction’ for a just transition towards resilient and greener economies.”

UN climate chief Simon Stiell acknowledged shortcomings in the compromise resolutions on fossil fuels and the level of funding for the Loss and Damages Fund. But the outcome, he said, was also the “beginning of the end” for the fossil fuel era.

Imperfect as it was and still based on old structures, COP28 hinted at the possible: a planetary approach to governance where common interests spanning climate, biodiversity and the whole health of Earth outweigh and supersede the current dominant global system of rule by nation states.

As we have tragically witnessed in 2023, the existing system – as vividly reflected in the repetitive stalemate among the five veto-bearing members of the UN Security Council – is failing to find resolution to the major conflicts of this year, Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza. Not to mention older and half-forgotten conflicts in places like Myanmar (18.6 million people in need of humanitarian aid) and in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (seven million displaced).

The unrestrained destruction of Gaza and the disproportionate killings of over 17,000, (now the death toll is “at least 20,000 people” according to Palestinian officials) mostly civilians– in retaliation for 1,200 killings by Hamas and 120 hostages in captivity– have left the Palestinians in a state of deep isolation and weighed down by a feeling of being deserted by the world at large.

The United Nations and the international community have remained helpless– with UN resolutions having no impact– while American pleas for restrained aerial bombings continue to be ignored by the Israelis in an act of defiance, wrote IPS senior journalist Thalif Deen.

The hegemony of the nation-state system is surely not going to disappear soon but – without wanting to sound too idealistic — its foundations are being chipped away by civil society where interdependence prevails over the divide and rule of the existing order. And so for a few examples encountered in our reporting:

CIVICUS Lens, standing for social justice and rooted in the global south, offers analysis of major events from a civil society perspective, such as its report on the security crisis gripping Haiti casting doubt over the viability of an international plan to dispatch a Kenya-led police contingent.

Education Cannot Wait, a global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, lobbied at COP28 for a $150 million appeal to support school-aged children facing climate shocks, such as the devastating drought in Somalia and Ethiopia, and floods in Pakistan where many of the 26,000 schools hit in 2022 remain closed.

Leprosy, an ancient but curable disease, had been pegged back in terms of new case numbers but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 made it harder for patients to get treatment and for new cases to be reported. Groups such as the Sasakawa Health Foundation are redoubling efforts to promote early detection and treatment.

With 80 percent of the world’s poorest living closer to the epicenters of climate-induced disasters, civil society is hammering at the doors of global institutions to address the challenges of adaptation and mitigation.

Lobbying on the sidelines of COP28 in Dubai was activist Joshua Amponsem, co-director of the Youth Climate Justice Fund who questioned why weather-resilient housing was not yet a reality in Mozambique’s coastal regions despite the increasing ferocity of tropical cyclones.

“My key message is really simple. The clock is ticking for food security in Africa,” Dr Simeon Ehui told IPS as the newly appointed Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture which works with partners across sub-Saharan Africa to tackle hunger, poverty and natural resource degradation.

Dr Alvaro Lario, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which has received record-breaking pledges in support of its largest ever replenishment, warns that under current trends 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty in 2030.

“Hunger remains a political issue, mostly caused by poverty, inequality, conflict, corruption and overall lack of access to food and resources. In a world of plenty, which produces enough food to feed everyone, how can there be hundreds of millions going hungry?” he asked.

Empowering communities in a bid to protect and rejuvenate the ecosystems of Pacific communities is the aim of the Unlocking Blue Pacific Prosperity conservation effort launched at COP28 by Palau’s President Surangel Whipps who noted that the world was not on track to meet any of the 17 sustainable development goals or climate goals by 2030.

A scientist with a life-long career studying coral reefs, David Obura was appointed this year as the new chair of IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

We really have reached planetary limits and I think interest in oceans is rising because we have very dramatically reached the limits of land,” says Dr Obura, “What the world needs to understand is how strongly nature and natural systems, even when highly altered such as agricultural systems, support people and economies very tangibly. It’s the same with the ocean.”

An ocean-first approach to the fight against climate change is also the pillar of a Dalhousie University research program, Transforming Climate Action, launched last May and funded by the Canadian government. Traditional knowledges of Indigenous People will be a focus.

As Max Roser, an economist making academic research accessible to all, reminds us: for more people to devote their energy to making progress tackling large global problems, we should ensure that more people know that it is possible.

Focusing on the efforts of civil society and projecting hope amidst all the heartbreak of 2023 might come across as futile and wasted, but in its coverage IPS will continue to highlight efforts and successes, big and small, that deserve to be celebrated.

Farhana Haque Rahman is the Executive Director of IPS Inter Press Service Noram and Senior Vice President of IPS; she served as the elected Director General of IPS from 2015 to 2019. A journalist and communications expert who lived and worked in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, she is a former senior official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development IFAD.

IPS UN Bureau


Right Here, Right Now: ECW’s USD 150 Million Climate Appeal to Save Children at Risk

Civil Society, Climate Change, Climate Change Justice, COP28, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Education, Environment, Featured, Humanitarian Emergencies, Poverty & SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals

Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here

Teacher Maria Alberto in her classroom, 3500 classrooms were destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Credit: Manan Kotak/ECW

Teacher Maria Alberto in her classroom, 3500 classrooms were destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Credit: Manan Kotak/ECW

NAIROBI, Nov 28 2023 (IPS) – A catastrophic surge in the frequency, intensity, and severity of extreme weather events has placed children on the frontlines of climate emergencies. Nearly half of the world’s children, or one billion, live in countries at extremely high risk from the effects of the climate crisis. Most of these children face multiple vulnerabilities.

An estimated 80 percent of countries categorized as extremely high-risk are also categorized as Least Developed Countries (LDCs). More than 62 million children—nearly one-third of the 224 million crisis-affected children worldwide in need of educational support—face the repercussions of climate-related events like floods, storms, droughts, and cyclones, which are further intensified by climate change. 

Against this backdrop and in advance of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, Education Cannot Wait (ECW), issued today an urgent appeal for USD 150 million in new funding to respond to the climate crisis.

“The very future of humanity is at stake. Rising seas, spiking temperatures, and ever-more-severe droughts, floods, and natural hazards are derailing development gains and ripping our world apart. As we’ve seen with the floods in Pakistan and the drought in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, climate change is triggering concerning jumps in forced displacement, violence, food insecurity, and economic uncertainty the world over,” said Yasmine Sherif, Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait.

The new appeal underscores the urgent need to connect education action with climate action. New ECW data indicates that 62 million children and adolescents affected by climate shocks have been in desperate need of education support since 2020. This appeal was prepared in November 2023 by the ECW Secretariat based on estimates provided in the organization’s background study, “Futures at Risk: Climate-Induced Shocks and Their Toll on Education for Crisis-Affected Children.

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The study draws on the latest ECW global update’s findings and methodology, as well as the latest research, and endeavors to bridge critical knowledge gaps with regard to the extent to which climate change, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss impact and displace school-aged children globally and influence access to education.

Study findings show that over the last five years, more than 91 million school-aged children impacted by crises have faced climate shocks amplified by climate change. The effects have been particularly pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa, affecting 42 million children, and in South Asia, impacting 31 million children. Among the various climate hazards assessed, droughts emerge as the most severe and persistent, disproportionately affecting children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The climate crisis is robbing millions of vulnerable girls and boys of their right to learn, their right to play, and their right to feel safe and secure. In the eye of the storm, we urge new and existing public and private sector donors to stand with them. We appeal to you to act right here, right now, to address the climate and education crisis,” said Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the ECW High-Level Steering Group.

Additionally, the Futures at Risk study stresses that children affected by climate hazards are at risk of educational disruptions due to forced displacement. In the 27 crisis-affected countries where 62 million children have been exposed to climate shocks since 2020, there were 13 million forced movements of school-aged children due to floods, droughts, and storms.

Young girls and boys after receiving UNICEF bags, books, and copies attending their first-class in a UNICEF-supported temporary learning centre next to the flood water in village Allah Dina Channa, district Lasbela, Baluchistan province, Pakistan. The primary school was badly damaged during a heavy monsoon rain in 2022. Credit: UNICEF

Young girls and boys, after receiving UNICEF bags and books, attended their first class in a UNICEF-supported temporary learning centre in Allah Dina Channa village, district Lasbela, Baluchistan province, Pakistan. The primary school was badly damaged during a heavy monsoon rain in 2022. Credit: UNICEF

The 224 million school-aged children globally effected by crises need diverse forms of educational support. Of these, 31 million children are in countries ill-prepared to handle the impacts of severe climate-related crises. Droughts, closely followed by floods, are the most frequently encountered climate-related shocks, which often intertwine and exacerbate one another.

“Education is an essential component in delivering on the promises and commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Sustainable Development Goals. As all eyes turn toward this year’s Climate Talks (COP28) and the Global Refugee Forum, world leaders must connect climate action with education action,” Sherif emphasizes.

The number of disasters driven, in part, by climate change has increased fivefold in the past 50 years. By 2050, climate impacts could cost the world economy USD 7.9 trillion and could force up to 216 million people to move within their own countries, according to the World Bank. This poses a real and present threat to global security, economic prosperity, and efforts to address the life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis.

Unmitigated, the study shows that the future of millions of children is at risk. Children who are already at risk of dropping out face an even higher risk when exposed to crises worsened by climate change and environmental degradation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where climate-related crises are prevalent, internally displaced children are 1.7 times more likely to be out of primary school compared to their non-displaced peers.

The study emphasizes that climate change impacts are not gender-neutral. Women and girls are disproportionally affected due to preexisting gender norms. Climate change exacerbates the risks of gender-based violence, school dropouts, food insecurity, and child marriage.

The new appeal outlines a strategic value proposition that connects donors, the private sector, governments, and other key stakeholders to create a coordinated approach to scaling up education funding in response to the climate crisis. The new funding aims to ensure learning continuity by providing mental health and psychosocial support, school rehabilitation and resilience, child protection, gender-based violence prevention and risk mitigation, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), disaster risk reduction, and anticipatory and early action measures.

ECW has championed the right to education for children affected by the global climate crisis. In the aftermath of devasting floods, Libya, Mozambique and Pakistan and spikes in hunger, forced displacement, and violence across the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, the ECW has issued emergency grants to get children and adolescents back to the safety and opportunity that quality education provides.

Within existing programmes in crisis-impacted countries like Bangladesh, Chad, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria, ECW investments are supporting climate-resilient infrastructure, disaster risk reduction, and school meals, offering hope and opportunity in the most challenging circumstances.

IPS UN Bureau Report


Two Years after the Taliban Took over, More Should Be Done to Rescue Afghanistan

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Education, Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


A young girl in school uniform and covered in veil walks alone in the empty corridor of Tajrobawai girls primary and secondary school seen on September 16, 2021 in Herat, Afghanistan. The Taliban has forbidden girls at high school level to attend schools throughout Afghanistan. Credit: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

KUALA LUMPUR / JOHANNESBURG, Aug 28 2023 (IPS) – His name is Matiullah Wesa, a girls education campaigner who now symbolises the “war” waged by the Taliban against the education and empowerment of women and girls. Exactly two years since the Taliban took over, Afghanistan is on a downward trajectory and unfortunately, global attention that was drawn by families chasing planes to flee a few days after the Taliban assumed control of the government has waned over the last two years.

Any improvements made in advancing human rights, especially the rights of women and access to education have been quickly reversed and replaced with severe restrictions that have almost completely wiped away the rights of women in almost all sectors and spheres of life. In a brazen move that provided a clear indication to the international community that the Taliban had an anti-human rights agenda, human rights defenders and members of their families have been harassed, detained and attacked in their homes while Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission was dissolved and its premises confiscated. In the absence of any internal human rights mechanism, the Taliban are only accountable to themselves and act with utmost impunity.

Matiullah was arrested in March 2023 for his dedication to provide education to girls particularly in rural areas. Through his organisation – PenPath which he founded in 2009, he campaigned for the right to education for girls, working with tribal leaders to provide mobile libraries to ensure girls have access to education. Penpath has successfully reopened 100 schools (including those closed for more than a decade due to war and the Taliban’s restrictions on education) in 16 provinces.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

In an interview with CIVICUS, a year before he was arbitrarily arrested, Matiullah pointed out that they had provided education facilities for about 110000 children, about 60% were girls and distributed 1.5 million stationary and collected 34000 books through its book donation campaigns. His continued detention means, at best this much needed support provided to communities has been scaled back substantively and at worse has almost completely stopped. Yet, Matiullah is just one among hundreds who have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Afghans over the years and are unable to do so either because they are in detention, have fled the country to avoid reprisals or have been forced to self censor.

The de facto Taliban regime has over the last two years institutionalised restrictions against women, dismissed women in public service, prevented girls from attending school and university and in December 2022, banned women from working with NGOs and aid agencies. It followed this decision exactly four months later by banning women from working for the UN in Afghanistan – as they had been exempted from the previous ban.

Through the Directorate for Intelligence, the regime monitors and targets women activists on social media and those identified as protest leaders. Others who participate in protests are identified through pictures posted on social media and through interrogations and arrested. On 11 February 2023, women’s rights activist and founder of the social movement – the Takhar Women’s Protest Movement – Parisa Mobarez, was arrested together with her brother in Takhar province and physically assaulted before they were released.

Matiullah Wesa, Afghan educational activist, reads to students in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matiullah Wesa/PenPath

A day after, activist Nargis Sadat was arrested for protesting against the restrictions on women’s right to work and education and released after two months. In response to an announcement by the Taliban regime that it would close beauty salons, women protesters converged at the Shar-e Naw district in Kabul on 19 July, displaying protest signs with calls for ‘bread,’ ‘work’ and ‘justice.’ The women protesters were rounded up as security forces fired shots into the air and physically assaulted some of the women using electric stun guns.

The above restrictions are happening in a context of an ever increasing humanitarian crises exacerbated by growing social and economic challenges. Human rights groups report that the number of people living in poverty has increased to 97%, an increase of about 47% over the last three years and that more than half of the population – about 28 million people urgently need humanitarian assistance. The restrictions placed on women in government ministries and the ban on women from working for NGOs have a devastating impact on the families of these women and communities including women and children who have benefited from services provided. In addition, most women have literally been confined to their homes as they are banned from gyms, swimming pools and public parks.

Afghan women are fighting back

Despite the reprisals from the Taliban and threats of violence and arrests, Afghan women continue to mobilise to keep the face they face on the agenda of the international community. The resilience of these brave Afghan women and their sustained protests continue to shed light on the state of human rights in Afghanistan, especially at a time when the international community seems to have moved on to other crises. As women protesters, journalists and human rights defenders and families face increased attacks, protests have been moved indoors and online. Some of the protesters continue to cover their faces to avoid reprisals while others remain unveiled to encourage others.

Photo courtesy of PenPath

What can be done?

The current situation is especially tricky for many international actors and though the Taliban craves for international recognition to boast its legitimacy, members of the international community including the European Union, United Kingdom and India who engage with the Taliban as well as humanitarian organisations and civil society groups should respect the wishes of Afghans and not provide any form of formal recognition to the de facto regime. They should also support Afghan women rights activists in exile.

Millions of Afghans will continue to need humanitarian assistance for the foreseeable future and ongoing and future dialogues to negotiate for space and access through humanitarian corridors should be premised on respect for human rights and lifting of current restrictions on women and girls.

At the level of the United Nations, the UN Security Council Resolution on Afghanistan which accused the Taliban of violating human rights and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan are important steps in the right direction but nearly not enough. The Security Council should continue to prioritise Afghanistan and push for accountability mechanisms inside of Afghanistan which would serve as some kind of a deterrent and a check on impunity. Lastly, there is a need for an intra-Afghan dialogue that is inclusive and should be led by a neutral party.

Josef Benedict is a researcher covering the Asia Pacific region for the CIVICUS Monitor. Malaysia. David Kode is the advocacy and campaigns lead for CIVICUS. South Africa

IPS UN Bureau


Moving From Trauma to Healing: Practicing Self-Care in Refugee Camps

Aid, Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Children on the Frontline, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Education, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Migration & Refugees

A young child in Cox’s Bazar engages with her peers at one of BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs. CREDIT: BRAC

A young child in Cox’s Bazar engages with her peers at one of BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs. CREDIT: BRAC

NEW YORK, Aug 21 2023 (IPS) – A Rohingya woman tells a forum of peer counselors the story of her divorce. A survivor of domestic abuse, she has started a new life alone with her daughter. She has weathered a storm of neighbors telling her she was the problem. Now, she provides the support she didn’t have to other women like her.

Similar scenes occur across refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Here, BRAC, an international NGO based in Bangladesh, has developed a program to train counselors who can provide mental health services to Rohingya refugees. This includes 200 community members who have begun to practice the psychosocial skills they’ve learned in their own lives.

A Growing Need for Support

Over 900,000 Rohingya have fled to Cox’s Bazar since massive-scale violence against Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State began in 2017, the UN Refugee Agency reports. The prolonged exposure of the ethnic minority group to persecution and displacement has likely increased the refugees’ vulnerability to an array of mental health issues, a 2019 systematic review found. Their struggles include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and gender-based violence.

Around the world, there is growing attention to the importance of socio-emotional learning as a skill to help people in areas of crisis cope with challenges. Educators are often tasked not only with providing traditional academic instruction but with building resilience in children. They are asked to create a sense of normalcy in environments that are anything but normal.

The teaching the children need is much more than about reading, writing, and math; but about giving young children a safe space to practice socio-emotional skills. CREDIT: BRAC

“It’s about not only teaching [kids] how to read and how to do mathematics … in these settings, kids and teachers themselves have the need for psychosocial support,” Ramya Vivekanandan, the senior education specialist at the Global Partnership for Education, said.

Teachers, caregivers, and frontline mental health providers are overburdened, Vivekanandan explains. They lack adequate pay, working conditions, and professional development. As they try to support the growing number of people in crisis, who will support them?

For some counselors in Cox’s Bazar, the answer is each other.

Community Care

Even when resources are available, stigmas around mental health can prevent support from being received. Taifur Islam, a Bangladeshi psychologist responsible for mental health training and supervision at BRAC, says people in the communities he works with are rarely taught to identify their feelings. When you are struggling to access basic needs, Islam explains, it is easy to forget that emotional well-being can improve productivity. If a person seeks help, they may be labeled ‘crazy.’

Training people to take care of their own communities can be a powerful way to overcome stigma in a culturally relevant way.

BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs were established in 2017 to give Rohingya children a safe space to practice socio-emotional skills through play. Erum Mariam, the executive director of the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, explains that each play lab is tailored to fit the community it serves. Rohingya children now rhyme, chant, and dance in 304 Humanitarian Play Labs across the camps in Cox’s Bazar.

“We discovered the Rohingya culture through the children. And the whole model is based on knowing the culture,” Mariam said.

‘Play leaders’ are recruited from the camps and trained in play pedagogy. Mariam watched Rohingya women who had never worked before embracing their new roles. As they covered the ceilings of their play spaces with rainbows of flowers – the kind of tapestry that would hang from their homes in Myanmar – Mariam realized that a new kind of social capital could be earned by nurturing joy. Traditional play didn’t just help uprooted children shape their sense of identity – it was also healing for the community.

If a play leader notices a child is withdrawn or restless, they can refer the child to a ‘para counselor’ who has been trained by BRAC’s psychologists to address the mental health needs of children and their family members. Almost half of the 469 para counselors in Cox’s Bazar are recruited from the Rohingya community, while the rest come from around Bangladesh. Most para counselors are women.

Many para counselors are uniquely positioned to empathize with the people they serve as they go door to door, building awareness. This is crucial because it creates a bottom-up system of care without prescribing what well-being should look like, Chris Henderson, a specialist on education in emergencies, says.

At the same time, by supporting others, mental health providers are learning to take care of themselves.

Learning by Doing

A play leader engages the children in the session. Humanitarian professionals encourage frontline teachers, caretakers, and counselors to actualize their own ideas for improvement. CREDIT: BRAC

A play leader engages the children in the session. Humanitarian professionals encourage frontline teachers, caregivers, and counselors to actualize their own ideas for improvement. CREDIT: BRAC

For months, Suchitra Rani watched violence against Rohingya people every time she turned on the news. When she was recruited by BRAC to become a para counselor in Cox’s Bazar, she saw an opportunity to make a difference. Alongside fellow trainees, Rani, a social worker originally from Magura, poured over new words she learned in the foreign Rohingya dialect and worked to find her place in the community.

Rani tested what she had learned about the value of psychosocial support and cultural sensitivity when she met a 15-year-old Rohingya girl too scared to tell her single mother she was pregnant. Terrified of bringing shame to the family, the girl had an abortion at home. As the young woman spiraled into depression, Rani felt herself slipping into her own fears of inadequacy.

It took time for Rani to convince the girl to open up to her mother. Talking through feelings of guilt slowly led to acceptance. As they worked to heal fractured family bonds, Rani began to feel surer of herself, too.

Now, the Rohingya community calls Rani a “sister of peace.” Rani says she has become confident in her ability to use the socio-emotional skills she’s learned to both help others and resolve problems in her personal life.

Throughout the program, para counselors have changed the way they communicate their feelings and felt empowered to create more empathetic environments.

Islam recounts a 26-year-old Rohingya refugee’s perilous journey to Cox’s Bazar: In Myanmar, the woman’s husband was killed in front of her. One of her two young children drowned during a river crossing as they fled the country. She arrived at the camp as a single mother without a support network. Only once she had the support of others willing to listen could she speak openly.

Islam remembers counselors telling the woman about the importance of self-care: “If you actually take care of yourself, then you can take care of your child also.”

Toward Empowerment 

According to Henderson, evidence shows that one of the best ways to support someone is to give them a role to help others. In places where there may be a stigma against prioritizing ‘self-care,’ people with their own post-crisis trauma are willing to learn well-being skills to help children.

A collection of teacher stories collected by the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies reveals a similar pattern. Teachers in crisis areas around the world say the socio-emotional skills they learned to help students helped them reduce stress in their own lives, too.

Henderson suggests that the best way international agencies can promote trauma support is by holding up a mirror to the strength already shown by refugee communities like the Rohingya.

Instead of seeing what they lack, Henderson encourages humanitarian professionals to help give frontline teachers, caregivers, and counselors the agency to actualize their own ideas for improvement. Empowered community leaders empower the young people they work with, who, in turn, learn to empower each other. This creates “systems where everyone sees their position of leadership as supporting the next person’s leadership and resilience.”

At the end of her para counselor training, the Rohingya domestic abuse survivor said she wasn’t sure what she would do with the skills she’d learned for working through trauma, Islam remembers. But she did say she wished they were skills she had known before. According to Islam, she is now one of their best para counselors.

“The training is not only to serve the community; that training is something that can actually change your life,” Islam says. It’s why he became a psychologist.

IPS UN Bureau Report