A Pakistani Aid Worker Responds to Her Country’s Dire Needs
Dealing with refugees and record flooding, Shabnam Baloch is leading efforts in Pakistan for the International Rescue Committee.
This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that profiles women leading the way on climate, politics, business and more.
A refugee crisis. Horrific floods. The vulnerability of girls and women. Pakistan has been in the middle of a widespread, profound upheaval that the humanitarian aid worker Shabnam Baloch has come to know all too well.
Ms. Baloch, 41, is the first Pakistani woman to serve as the Pakistan country director for the International Rescue Committee. She supervises the organization’s services to Afghan refugees who are living within Pakistan and to the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who have been displaced by last summer’s monsoon floods.
Ms. Baloch grew up in Sindh Province, attending a small rural primary school that had been built and staffed by her mother. After earning a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from Sindh Agriculture University and a diploma in counseling at Monash University in Australia, she worked for various organizations focused on humanitarian assistance and development. Among them were the Sindh Education Foundation and Oxfam, where she was deputy country director for South Sudan.
She joined the International Rescue Committee in 2022.
She lives in Islamabad with her husband and two teenage sons. The following interview, conducted by video, has been edited and condensed.
Where were you when the monsoons began last summer?
At my office in Islamabad. At first we thought it would just be the normal monsoon rains that happen here in the early summer. But the rains kept coming and coming and coming, and they continued until September. There were districts where it rained for a continuous eight weeks. This was not normal.
In some districts, the monsoon was 700 percent above what was usual. In one district, it was 2,300 percent above the average. The scale of the disaster just kept increasing. Millions were displaced from their homes and farms. Whole villages were wiped out. At one point, a third of the country was underwater.
When I went out into the countryside to assess what the needs were, I saw things that were just mind-blowing.
I saw complete devastation. I had worked in many humanitarian crisis situations — Yemen and with the Afghanistan refugees — and I had never seen anything like this. If you can imagine it, 7.9 million people were displaced and 33 million, at some level, were impacted. As I toured the countryside, people showed me where villages once were, and now there was a river.
When I visited Sindh Province, some people were living on rooftops without water or electricity. You could see dead animals nearby. In many other villages, people were living on the roadside in makeshift arrangements or in camps set up by the government.
Our teams responded by providing emergency aid in over 20 districts. We delivered waterproof tents, health services, cooked foods, drinkable water, emergency cash, warm clothes and dignity kits for the women and girls.
We also worked with local NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] to set up safe spaces for the women and girls because they are at particular risk for violence and exploitation during times of crisis.
“Dignity kits”? What are those?
Soap, hygiene products and reusable menstrual napkins.
Providing these kinds of services for women, is this something new?
I wouldn’t say so. Among the humanitarian organizations, we’ve always had an inclusive response.
Still, in this emergency, we needed to respond to the exclusive needs of women and girls because the women in rural Pakistan, they normally don’t go outside the home much. When the disaster hit, they were forced to leave their homes and live in makeshift situations. They often didn’t know what to do. The social protection mechanism of the villages, the women had lost it.
Many of our clients needed to be protected from assault. Wherever they were living, either on the road or in camps, they were in danger whenever they engaged in their private activities. The women often had to travel long distances for their sanitation requirements or to fetch water, which is, in Pakistan, a woman’s job. That made them vulnerable to assault.
We were able to help by providing 172 safe spaces for women and children in 20 of the most flood-impacted areas. Among things, we set up solar-powered lighting so they could do their personal business with greater safety at night.
We also provided reproductive and psychosocial services for them — places where they could connect and talk about what they’d been through.
You are the first Pakistani woman to work as the I.R.C. country head in Pakistan. Do you think it is extra important for the humanitarian organizations to hire women for their top posts?
Yes. Because the organizations work with the most vulnerable communities, and the most vulnerable within those are women. In order to reach them, it’s important to have female grass-roots staff and leadership.
When, last summer, I traveled to the disaster-affected communities, the women talked to me about things they’d never discuss with a man, like the need for those dignity kits.
I was able to talk to the women in a culturally sensitive environment. It’s not that a man can’t be effective, but a male country-director would not have been able to talk to those women directly.
What did you tell the women you met with?
I didn’t tell them anything. I listened.
Some people say last year’s flooding in Pakistan was one of the first of the climate change disasters. Do you see it that way?
I do. People here think of it as a climate catastrophe and not as a routine monsoon flood.
I remember last summer visiting a severely destroyed village in Sindh Province. This 60-year-old woman said she’d never seen such a flood in her life. When I asked where she thought the water came from, she answered, “Somebody has done something somewhere else in the world, and now we are suffering.”
That was her way of saying something she was intuiting: that her country emits 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases but experiences the shock of what the developed countries do. In Pakistan, our hot seasons are getting hotter and our wet seasons are wetter.
The extreme weather pushes people beyond their abilities to cope, recover and rebuild.