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Pashtun Women Increasingly Working Away From Home

Even in conservative Pashtun areas, an increasing number of Pakistani women are becoming breadwinners for their families.
In the conservative Pashtun society of northwest Pakistan, it's very rare to see a girl repairing shoes in the male-dominated bazaars. At least it used to be rare. Sumera, 12, is one of an increasing number of Pakistani women who have become breadwinners for their families.

Talking to RFE/RL in a market in the Mardan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Sumera details how an accident left her father disabled and unable to use one of his hands. This, combined with constant price hikes and other economic hardships, have conspired to put Sumera to work to provide for her family.

She started repairing shoes with her father at a very young age, dropping out of school after the third grade to begin work. Sumera is one of four children, none of whom are currently going to school.

Times are especially tough during the month of Ramadan, when prices of meat and other food can double or triple in price.

Qamar, a 43-year-old woman selling turmeric in a Bannu market, describes how she earns 60-70 rupees ($0.70-$0.80) per day, which hardly allows her to buy rice or potatoes, let alone meat or other more expensive foodstuffs, for her six children.

Qamar tells RFE/RL that she did not want to leave her home and children every day to work, but there was simply no other option for her, as her husband is a drug addict and cannot provide for them.

Nabila Farman, a project manager in the Ministry of Social Welfare and Women's Development of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tells RFE/RL that the Pakistani government is planning to help such women by providing training for how to run businesses. But, the training has yet to begin, and if it does, it will have little immediate effect.

The devastating effects of last year's severe flooding are still prevalent in the tribal areas. According to the UN, more than 800,000 people are living with out a proper home and the country has suffered $10 billion in damage to infrastructure. To boot, load-shedding has become common and energy and staple food prices shift irregularly.

Young Sumera has been working from the early morning into the afternoon for the last five years, since she was just 7 years old. She harbors no illusions about her present or future.

"My friends tell me to join them in school," she says. "But, I know I cannot go."

Amid the violence and economic turbulence, Pakistan's present looks dire enough. The future may be even worse.

-- Farkhanda Wazir