January 4, 2021

By


LAHORE/KARACHI/PESHAWAR/QUETTA

Humaira often thinks of killing herself in order to escape the burden that is life. Following the country-wide emergency lockdown in late March 2020, Humaira’s livelihood, that she had found with so much difficulty, collapsed before her very eyes. When her factory shut down, she only had 50 Rupees in her savings.

Humaira and her family had moved to Lahore in search of work in January 2020. It wasn’t easy but after her husband fell ill and was unable to work, life became unimaginably difficult. Humaira became the sole breadwinner for her family.

As a lone woman, there was no dearth of discrimination and harassment that she had to face when looking for work, and it made it difficult for her to even hold down a job. It was not until she found some security in a garment manufacturing company that economic conditions in her home were somewhat stabilised.

In January of 2020, as the world came under the grip of COVID-19, with scores continuing to die, governments faced little other recourse other than to have the public confined to their homes. Many of the world’s economies screeched to a halt, and financial ruin for millions ensued leading to a sharp and to some extent an irreversible rise in poverty levels.

In Pakistan, the outbreak of the virus came in late February of 2020. The pandemic led to an imposition of emergency measures to curb the spread of the contagion, save as many lives as possible and prevent the collapse of the country’s already deficient healthcare sector.

For a country as poor as Pakistan, the economic fallout was more severe than in more developed states.

Part of those who were affected the worst in Pakistan, were the women – a part of the already vulnerable section of society. They became victims of the financial collapse, and in spite of the economic inequality and patriarchal attitudes, were able to eke out a living.

Like Humaira, Rozina too suffered a disintegration of her business.

After completing her Masters in 2017, Rozina began growing and cultivating fresh flowers in her hometown of remote Hunza. She learned how to market her crop online and found a middleman in Lahore to sell her flowers in the bustling city. Her business bloomed, but when weddings and celebrations were outlawed as an emergency measure after the coronavirus outbreak, her income and her product both withered away.

In the same way, Karachi’s Uzma fell into financial depression when her company, unable to bear losses during the lockdown situation, was forced to sack all employees before closing down. The sole breadwinner of her family, she frantically began searching for work but found nothing amidst the financial crunch.

After emptying out her savings, Uzma had to resort to taking loans to make ends meet. There were days when she and her family had nothing to eat. Very soon, they were three months behind rent. Apart from promises, she has yet to see her government help the financially vulnerable from this quagmire.

Meanwhile, Qurat-ul-Ain who had quit teaching some 10 years ago, had been running her own beauty salon in Peshawar, the heart of one of Pakistan’s most challenging cities in terms of women’s rights, safety and opportunities.

Like many, she had expected her business to remain closed for a few weeks when the pandemic hit, but when months passed by without work, without another Rupee in hand, she had to lay off her staff whom she couldn’t afford to pay anymore, much less support her family. Regrettably, whatever she had set aside for her burial shroud had to be used so that she could continue to support her school-going daughters.

There were others who lost their chance in the field they wanted.

Tahreen from Quetta had spent roughly two decades of her life as a salesperson and had opened up her own business making and retailing school uniforms.

The COVID-19 outbreak forced a sustained closure of schools, perhaps the worst-hit of all sectors; in the same way, Tahreen’s business has been suffering for the past 11 months. She could not pay her employees or make rent for her little shop, and has been facing threats by the building owner to vacate the shop.

With vaccines expected to roll out in the first quarter of 2021, the pandemic may soon be coming to an end but the havoc and destruction it has wreaked upon the economy may mean that Humaira, Rozina, Uzma, Qurat-ul-Ain and Tahreen’s fates may still be in peril. But for some of these women, life’s  bleakness has dulled their hopes, desires and drive for a better future – yet a small kindle of hope lives on.

Humaira has managed to purchase her own sewing machine, making and repairing clothes for neighbours and nearby locals.

Rozina has no doubt that her business will continue to flourish, and is seeking out other women suffering from the pandemic’s crunch to find work with her.

Uzma, who has a degree, is confident that she’ll be able to land a new job as restrictions ease and businesses restart. When the situation becomes calmer, Qurat-ul-Ain wants to learn new skills and trades, and hopes to even find more opportunities.

In her heart Tahreen knows, that the storm will come to pass and all things will return to normal once again.

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