Lack of cell phone services leads to death for some women in former FATA

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

The former tribal areas, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have experienced military operations, conflict and displacement at a massive scale over the past decade. The area has been one of the focal points for the war on terror and continues to suffer from the effects of the conflict and years of neglect before that. 

Due to the operation in 2014 alone, about 929,859 people from north Waziristan were forced to flee their homes, becoming Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). After the conflict, as these people returned to their homes and towns, they found infrastructure even more dilapidated than before. At the same time international aid poured in to help alleviate some of the issues. However, one thing that over the subsequent years seemed to allude anyone working on development in the area is the communication and internet infrastructure. 

Those returning to the area, felt the stark difference in connectivity even more so than before. 

Being a woman journalist in disconnected land

A few hundred kilometers from South Waziristan’s capital, Wanna, lies the small town of Ladha. A picturesque mountainous area, it’s not the sort of place where one would expect to find an appetite for a woman journalist, yet the town has its own woman journalist: Raziya Mehsud.

Ladha’s green mountains and snow capped peaks, could be the envy of many, but like other places in the former tribal areas, very little is known about it. There are no cell phone towers or internet connection that would make it easier for residents to connect to the country or the rest of the world. For women this makes voicing themselves, even more difficult, due the cultural and social constraints they already live with. 

“Women in Waziristan have so many problems, that if they start talking at dawn, it will be dusk but the problems will not end,” says Raziya, adding that very little is known about these issues because of limited connectivity in the region. She says that it further restricts their abilities to not only work in a professional capacity but also their ability to voice their concerns to the wider world.  

Raziya points to online campaigns in the past asking for justice for women and children, including the #MeToo campaign in the country. “Has there ever been a voice for the women of tribal areas? Those who do not have [internet] service to connect with their loved ones and even if it is available, there are no signals, how can these women speak up for their rights?” she asks.

The pandemic though has laid bare the issue of internet access in the former tribal districts in a way that was not discussed before, particularly through students protesting online classes. Raziya also points to the professional cost, especially during COVID-19, that lack of internet connectivity or a proper telecommunications structure can have. She has to travel to Dera Ismail Khan, which is five hours by road, to attend any webinar or discussion taking place online. She says she feels like she has “disappeared” in a sense. 

The problems of connectivity in the former tribal areas though run deeper than lost professional opportunity.

Gendered implications of the digital divide

Most of the smaller towns do not have proper hospitals, with staff over burdened in the limited health facilities that do exist. News reports over the years have documented the difficult most residents have in reaching healthcare in cases of emergence. Ladha, Raziya’s hometown, has one ‘Model Health Facility’ established by the government, with a labour room and operation theatre but no trained staff.  Construction of a larger hospital, that was going to cater to residents from nearby villages, started in 2017, but remains incomplete to this day. 

The poor communication infrastructure makes it even more difficult for residents to call for health care services or even loved ones in case of an emergency. Women, who are not allowed to leave the house in most cases or have limited access to cell phones or regular phones, bear the brunt of this divide. 

Memona Mehsud, who is 26 years old, now lives in the capital of SouthWaziristan, Miranshah itself, and is the eldest amongst five sisters. She is now also their primary caregiver. When her mother went into labour three years ago in Ladha, Memona was alone at home with her sisters and was unable to call her father or any health service for aid because she did not have a cell phone. There was no point in having one, because there was no telecom service available around their house. As a result, Memona’s mother died giving birth to her seventh child. 

“I want to ask the government are we less human, if there were better hospitals and if service providers were available in our area, my mother would be alive today,” she says adding, “Can you imagine sitting for hours in a corner of the house, just in hope of strong signals. People living in the capital of Pakistan and other provincial capitals are privileged and we are not even able to communicate with each other in the time of disaster.”

She says  being connected to the internet and having cell phone services is a basic right that should be guaranteed to all people of the tribal areas. “I am living in the capital of Waziristan, if I don’t have internet facility you can imagine what it feels like to be in far flung areas of Waziristan,” she says.

Only 50 percent of Pakistani women own a mobile phone while men  have the largest share with 81 percent ownership, according to GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019. The pandemic has highlighted the need to  access the internet, and the need to bridge the gender gap, specifically in areas such as former FATA, where women’s access to public spaces, even to seek healthcare is severely limited.    

“The whole world is using different techniques to fight with COVID-19 through the internet but many of the tribal women do not even know about COVID-19, If a woman dies of COVID-19, she or even her family don’t know what has happened to her.” says Raziya.

She furthered that when there was strict lockdown in the country, Waziristan was pretty normal, “No one had any idea about the virus, and the basic reason is they are not familiar with the internet and do not have connectivity to get information.” 

Raziya adds that where people in other countries are using the internet to innovate during the pandemic, find solutions to social, medical or political problems that have risen as a result of lockdowns, people in Waziristan are still looking to the government for basic connectivity.

Nighat Dad, the founder of Digital Rights Foundation, an organisation working for greater access to the internet in Pakistan, agrees with Raziya. She adds that in areas like Waziristan, it is very important to note that women’s access is also limited by patriarchal norms and values, and the state’s inability to provide them the internet is another added barrier to access.

She says, “Where other countries have ensured basic women rights by setting WiFi hotspots, internet cafes accessible to women, the only source of information for women in tribal areas is their male members who can somehow, manage to access information through dhabas, [or] through some community televisions.”

Nighat says that in an area where women are not even allowed to use mobile phones, proper access to healthcare is even more difficult to talk about. She also believes that this makes women in tribal areas more vulnerable to misinformation and more likely to be silenced.  “We don’t have their voice, we don’t have their narrative. What and how can we describe their state of health? When we don’t have their narrative, their voices are missing from day one, and the state has failed in providing them their basic right,” she says. 

Missing Information

Patriarchal traditional family health structures restrict women’s ability to decide for themselves about family planning and pregnancy,  and many other women like Memons’a mother have lost their lives. They are in dire need of internet facilities to help them become more aware of their own healthcare needs. 

Muneeba, a 25 year old student from Ladha, moved to Islamabad for university and saw how far ahead her peers were in understanding and using technology. She asked her family for permission to acquire a cell phone. A request that was promptly denied. 

However, she experienced first hand the positive impact access to cell phones and the internet could have on women understanding their own healthcare needs. She says she felt unwell one day and overcame her shyness to share her symptoms with her friends. Her friends helped her by googling her symptoms and found out that they were similar to breast cancer, which was then properly diagnosed and treated by doctors. 

“I thought that if we have been provided with the internet, tribal women can also search their healthcare issues but that’s not the case, we are still dependent on old methods of health care. Most of us die not knowing.”

She said women in her hometown often give birth to twelve or fourteen children but are unaware of how it can deteriorate their health, or of issues like postpartum depression. Like Raziya, she also feels like they are the “most ignored.”

Access to justice for the internet

Recently due the lockdown students from the former tribal areas protested online classes and the lack of internet facilities. Sayed Mohammad, resident of district Kurrama and a student petitioned the Islamabad High Court (IHC). The bench, hearing the case,  headed by Chief Justice Athar Minallah, expressed surprise over non-availability of the internet while listening to the  petition and directed concerned authorities to “restore the internet in the former Federally Administered Tribal areas (FATA).”

The IHC chief justice also directed the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to submit a written reply. 

However, in a hearing in May IHC sought assistance from the petitioners counsel for restoration of internet services, questioning the court’s jurisdiction to intervene in the matter, since the Supreme Court had set aside the IHC’s judgement from 2018 allowing PTA and the Interior Ministry to suspend cell phone and internet services in the country. 

In an earlier hearing the ministry of information informed the IHC that they had suspended internet service in 2016 over security concerns. The hearing has been adjourned for an indefinite period. The court also noted that since the merger of the tribal districts with KP, the issue had also become a provincial matter and the court could not issue instructions to a province. 

Kamran Khan Bangash, is Special Assistant to Chief Minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Science & Information Technology says that the issues of internet services is not within the realm of the provincial government, under the (PTA) and universal service fund (USF), a fund collected by taxing telecom service companies,  are responsible for the development of infrastructure. 

“When I was taking care of this issue  we were the  one who took that issue with federal government, we hold a collaborative event with USF, in which we were working for the internet provision for south and north Waziristan,” he says adding that subsequently  Zia Ullah Bangash who took office after is also in touch with the federal government to develop infrastructure because the provincial government can only assist them.. 

He says the PTI government has also raised the issue within cabinet meetings and demanded internet facilities, “not only in tribal areas, but also in settled areas too, because both areas are the responsibility of the federal government in terms of internet provision.” 

In the COVID-19 pandemic when all the right information was just a click away, tribal women were snatched from their basic right. Rights activists like Nighat question the state’s inability to provide the people of former FATA, especially under the current pandemic with proper functioning internet. She says, , “When the state has declared Waziristan a war-free zone, then why aren’t there any boosters installed?”

Despite promises, the restoration of internet facilities in the former tribal areas has been slow. In March, 2019 some areas of Bajaur Agency saw the restoration of 3G services, after being blocked for nearly 3 years. However, other districts, including North and South Waziristan, Kurram, Khyber and Mohmand Agency still have limited connectivity. Private internet service providers are absent from the area, and barely any infrastructure exists to support their presence. 

After the protests, there has been some government action to provide internet. In April of this year USF awarded Jazz Rs 92 million to provide high speed internet services in Kurram Lot. Similarly, the Frontier Corps, set up internet cafes in South Waziristan to allow students access to the internet. 

These measures are aimed at students, who are also not satisfied with the services being provided. In between all of this the women in the former tribal areas do not have the space, resources or cultural permission to even voice their concerns. 

Women’s health is an indicator of social, political and economic development of the nation. Women are half of Pakistan’s total population and from a strictly economic perspective, productivity of women is lowered when healthcare is compromised. The difference between first hand information and second hand information is vital, one that can only be fixed with rigorous investment in infrastructure and awareness within the former tribal areas and the country at large, where women’s access to information continues to rely on the men around them.

Sumaira Ashraf Rajput is Pakistani feminist, digital journalist and social Media activist. She has an unflagging passion for news, women empowerment, digital rights and civil supremacy with a yearning for adventure & food. She tweets at @sumaira_rajput

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