Pakistani women scale the heights in rescue teams

Women are central to disaster relief in Pakistan’s mountain villages, honing their skills to save the lives of other women
<p>Avalanche rescue training in Chitral, northern Pakistan (Image: Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Pakistan (AKAH-P))</p>

Avalanche rescue training in Chitral, northern Pakistan (Image: Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Pakistan (AKAH-P))

Shamim Bano, a middle-school teacher, has recently returned from a fortnight in Kabul where she taught Afghan women to do search-and-rescue work. The training involved climbing mountains and gorges using ropes and harnesses, using ziplines and rappelling. “Any wrong move and you can start a rock fall,” she explained.

Handling serious casualties, “with broken bones, head, neck and back injuries,” was also part of the training, she added.

Even as a young girl Bano was concerned about purdah coming in the way of rescues. “Often men found it awkward to save purdah-observing women during a disaster, leaving them to die,” she said.

In 2008, she seized the chance to become a search-and-rescue volunteer. Now a trainer herself, she continues to take part in a monthly drill to improve her skills.

CPR training
CPR training (Image: AKAH-P)

Many dangers

Bano lives in Pakistan’s northernmost region of Gilgit-Baltistan, a place where three of the world’s highest mountain ranges converge – the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram range and the Himalayas. This includes 50 mountain peaks over 7,000 metres, and five that exceed 8,000 metres, including K2, the world’s second highest peak. Powerful mountain rivers, including the Hunza and the Gilgit, slice through the region, and there are hundreds of glaciers.

But the magnificent landscape is routinely disturbed by tremors, avalanches, landslides and glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) that can shake the lives of its people.

Changing climate

The communities of Gilgit-Baltistan are among those most affected by climate change, said Salmanuddin Shah, head of the emergency management department at the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Pakistan (AKAH-P).

Bano is one of 50,000 volunteers, half of them women, whom AKAH-P has trained in community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM) since it was founded as Focus Pakistan in 1998.

Rappelling training
Rappelling training (Image: AKAH-P)

Other communities facing increasing disaster risks are those in Chitral in the mountainous province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and in the coastal areas of Sindh province, Shah said.

AKAH also has offices in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Syria and the coastal plains of the Indian subcontinent.

“Glacier surge and GLOF events have increased exponentially in recent years,” said Nawab Ali Khan, AKAH-P’s chief executive.

He cited two recent surges in the Hunza valley area – the Khirodpin glacier in Shimshal and Shishper in Hassanabad. “Both the glaciers moved down the valleys for miles, blocking the valley, creating artificial lakes. Likewise, the sudden break of the Badswat glacier in Ghizer district inundated the whole village of Badswat, after blocking the Ghizer River,” he said.

Of the 777 settlements in Pakistan’s climate-induced hazard zones, Khan said 40% are exposed to multiple natural hazards, with mountain communities being most vulnerable.  

Environment degradation compounded by rapid population growth has exacerbated the disaster risks facing people in mountainous regions, who are among the country’s “poorest, [most] disadvantaged and isolated populations,” he said.  

A glacier in the Shimshal valley
A glacier in the Shimshal valley (Image: AKAH-P)

Rahim Aga Khan, chair of the Environment and Climate Committees of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), said: “For decades the AKDN has been working with vulnerable communities to improve quality of life and reduce disaster risk. Today in the face of the climate crisis, understanding and mitigating these risks is even more urgent. Only by helping these communities adapt and thrive in harmony with their often-precarious habitat can we hope to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

AKAH-P received a gold 2020 World Habitat Award for its approach to integrating technology and indigenous knowledge, and for a “rare” level of integration between development work and disaster risk management at community level. They bring together geologists, satellite imagery and risk-mapping tools with local communities to create local Hazard Vulnerability and Risk Assessments (HVRAs) that identify the best forms of land use and safest places to build.

It has carried out HVRAs in 785 settlements since 2004, mostly in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. The work involves many different kinds of volunteers, as they build shelters, develop disaster management plans and install weather monitoring posts and community-based early warning systems.


“Communities are at the core of our work, and the key to its success are its volunteers,” said Khan.

Dedicated teams of women volunteers are an important part of working with communities in effective ways, though men and women are trained together, said Bibi Nusrat, a 40-year-old nurse from Karimabad, who has worked as a CBDRM training officer in AKAH-P’s Chitral office since 2000. She visits disaster-prone villages to train communities in how to protect themselves: in 2020, she visited 15 of the 150 avalanche-prone villages in Chitral.

volunteers refreshing their skills on rope management
Volunteers refresh their rope skills (Image: AKAH-P)

Like Bano, Nusrat too stressed the importance of women being a core component of these teams. “I think it is necessary for women to be in a rescue team as men of the families may not always be there at the time of disaster, and keeping cultural sensitivity and purdah in mind is very important to the local people.”

Not all supporters of purdah believe it should apply in a disaster. Fifty-five-year old Nawaz Khan from Nusrat’s village is a strict follower of purdah who said: “I would not mind if a strange man rescues women from my family.”  

Unfortunately such views are sometimes missing even in core urban areas, far less the remote places where natural disasters are more common.

A tragic building collapse last year in Rizvia Society, in Karachi’s Golimar area, trapped nearly two dozen women and children. Shah said residents blocked male rescuers who were trying to reach women stuck under debris. Munira Barkat has been on the team since 2013, and said: “In our society, which is so conservative this keeps cropping up, men survivors are adamant that no male rescuer will touch the dead body of their women. They would rather leave them buried in the rubble. So having women in rescue work is of utmost importance.”

AKAH-P’s search and rescue team is 40% women. “Both men and women are trained in the same skill sets,” said Khan.

Putting training to work

Bano’s first big rescue mission was in 2010 when a massive landslide hit the village of Attabad in the Hunza valley, killing 20 people. The landslide also blocked the Hunza river, creating a lake that displaced 6,000 people living upstream.

attabad landslide
Landslides like the one that hit Attabad in 2010, pictured here, can be devastating (Image: AKAH-P)

“For the first time, I had to face the real deal, dead bodies too,” said Bano.  

For Nusrat, it was the March 2016 avalanche in Susoom, which killed nine students, that will always stay with her.

She spent two weeks in a tent, braving snow storms and rain, to care for the dead bodies, the unconscious, the injured and people with hypothermia. “I must have helped dozens, and cleaned and prepared eight bodies before sending them off to families,” she recalled.

Rescuers working after the Susoom avalanche
Rescuers working after the Susoom avalanche (Image: AKAH-P)

Training villagers

Nusrat explained how day-long training sessions in villages to draw up local risk-management plans are run. “We educate them about avalanches, the type, seasons and how to protect themselves in case of such an eventuality. After a historic profile of the village, an evacuation plan marked with a safe route to use and reach a shelter equipped with tents, food, medicines etc is drawn up.”

Her team also collects data on households at particular risk from avalanches.   

This is followed by the formation of gender-inclusive community emergency-response teams, local search-and-rescue teams, and disaster assessment and response teams, as well as capacity building for emergency preparedness and responsiveness.

Simulation training for emergency-response teams and search-and-rescue teams
Simulation training for emergency-response teams and search-and-rescue teams (Image: AKAH-P)

Another villager, also called Nawaz Khan, emphasised the importance of CBDRM sessions. He lost his only son, 19-year-old Mubashir Hasan, to the Susoom avalanche. “Had it not been for the AKAH-P people, I may never have found my son’s body,” he said.

“It was difficult and I was scared, but I can now say without fear that a woman can do anything a man can do,” said 37-year-old Safi Gul, from Susoom, who volunteered alongside Nusrat during the avalanche.

This article was originally published on The Third Pole.