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Aamir Jamal,
Associate Professor. Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

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Adnan Ashraf,
Student, Ph.D. in Social Work, Department of Social Work, University of Peshawar, Pakistan

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Omer Jamal,
Student, LLB international and European Law, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Social Work Practice in Conflict Zones of Northwest Pakistan: Key Lessons from the Field on Gender Justice and Violence Against Women Prevention Initiatives

The Role of Social Work in Global Conflict Zones

The proliferation of armed conflict and natural disasters in the 21st century has redefined and reshaped the role of international and local social workers. Social workers are at the frontline in the post-conflict and post-disaster phases in various regions across the globe (Truell, 2019; Yesufu, 2006). The global agendas for international social work practice and policies are urging social workers to play an active role in addressing issues of socioeconomic inequalities, promote the dignity and worth of all people, create awareness on environmental sustainability, and advocate for recognition of the importance of human relationships (Rinkle & Powers, 2019).

Thus, social workers have become critical actors in stability, security, rebuilding, and rehabilitation efforts in these conflict and disaster zones and have adopted an increasingly influential role in policymaking as they navigate through novel global challenges for the profession (Radulescu, 2020). Social workers' efforts are not limited to conflict and disasters, but they also play a critical role as countries encounter its post-conflict or post-disaster phases, in particular, in leading initiatives in humanitarian relief, food and water security and distribution, mental health, and other redevelopment and rehabilitation efforts (BASW, 2019).

As the role of social workers continues to develop and advance in this regard, it is critical to acknowledge that those in the profession themselves are also faced with a multitude of issues such as "fear of loss of life, violence, unstable infrastructures, and working conditions" as well as their own ethical and personal conflicts in their fieldwork (Moore, 2016, p.384; Simmons & Rycraft, 2010). Despite these concerns, social workers are often at the forefront of any conflict, providing critical support and assistance in conflict zones and having a major impact on the post-conflict, post-disaster trajectory of a country. The most impacted by such conflicts and disasters are women, children, and marginalized communities, often overlooked by governments and mainstream rehabilitation programmes and whose special needs and rights are easily negotiated out (Snouber, 2016). Social workers bring social justice and equity perspectives to advocate for marginalized groups and provide greater assistance and support to those who are identified as historically oppressed. As such, social workers play a more critical role in supporting gender justice initiatives and preventing violence against women and children during and after conflicts and disasters (Javadian, 2007).

Conflict Background of Pakistan

Pakistan has faced a multitude of conflicts and disasters that have left devastating impacts on the country. The War on Terror launched by the United States (US), in response to 9/11 attacks with the help of members from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Pakistan alliance, invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The Taliban's top leadership managed to flee and seek refuge across Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, that is to say the ex Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Taliban retaliated against the Pakistan government mainly through suicide bombings specifically on the armed and security forces but also on the general public. This has resulted in over $150 billion in economic losses, over 3.7 million persons displaced, and over 70,000 citizens killed which has left the country still dealing with its repercussions (Ahmed, 2011). The 2005 Kashmir earthquake resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people and displaced over 2.5 million people across Kashmir and Pakistan.

This was considered the deadliest earthquake in the South Asian history, forcing the country into extensive rebuilding and recovery efforts (Mahmood et al., 2015). The impact of these conflicts and disasters cannot be underestimated as Pakistan continues to face complex issues stemming from these conflicts and disasters. More specifically, women and children have been significantly impacted by these conflicts and disasters, with females making up nearly half of internally displaced persons (IDPs) at 46% of all age groups. With girls' education and health centers being the common targets of Taliban's militant attacks, the female literacy rates in the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan have fallen below 1% (Mohsin, 2013; Naqvi et al., 2012).

Taliban resists girls' education based on their rigid and extreme interpretation of religion in which women have a restricted role at home and in the community. They also consider girls' schools as symbols of the western education system - as 'the smiling faces of western invaders' (Jamal, 2016). In addition, these centers have already been struggling with longstanding infrastructural, functional, and logistical issues. In response, social workers in Pakistan have begun to play a more prominent role in every sector, thus casting a wide net to assist in and resolve a variety of issue areas, especially with regard to gender justice and violence against women and children (Kamali, 2016).

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Social workers in conflict and disaster zones in Pakistan

Social workers in Pakistan often lead and coordinate relief efforts, work with the military, civilian government, and international relief groups, and provide professional, psychological, and personal assistance (Khan, 2012). Moreover, social workers provide critical assistance to particularly vulnerable groups such as women, children, older-adults, transgenders, sex workers, and religious minorities who already suffer from oppression and marginalization and are amongst the most neglected groups for protection and/or service provision (Ali, 2016). Local social workers have been actively involved through community-based humanitarian initiatives as well as working through local and International non-government organisations (NGOs). In conflict situations, professional social workers working with foreign funded NGOs were commonly seen with suspicion as being agents of the western invaders (Jamal, 2018). They are often directly and personally impacted during violent attacks in their areas, becoming victims of kidnappings, and face security issues, threats to life, and being accused of spying for foreign governments, that often result in hostile and intimidating working conditions (Mohsin, 2013; Naqvi, 2012).

A Case of Social Work in Violence Against Women (VAW) initiatives in Pakistan

Beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to the American attack on the Taliban government in 2011 and since then a continued cycles of wars and conflicts in the Pashtun regions in both northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan created a hostile, insecure, and uncertain environment. This has discouraged any positive social change or socioeconomic development in the region. In particularly, these conditions had a devastating impact on gender justice and women rights. This violent environment of fear and oppression introduced, and enriched extremist ideologies and men dominated rigid interpretations of Quran (scripture) that have had a direct impact on the role, status and well-being of women. Particularly, violence against women and girls significantly increased with local human rights organizations estimating 1000 "honor killings" every year and a minimum of 94 women murdered by family members in the Pashtun region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2017 (Zarar, 2018).

A countrywide study on the prevalence of domestic violence in Pakistan, where 3, 687 married women were interviewed, showed that 32% of women had experienced physical violence, and 39% had experienced physical and/or emotional violence from their spouses (NIPS, 2013). 35% of women have faced multiple physical injuries, and one out of nine women encountered violence during their pregnancy (NIPS, 2013). Men who ascribe to rigid interpretation of religious text and a men dominated cultural framework of Pashtun patriarchy often accept and internalize gender inequality, commit and condone violence (Tremblay et al., 2007). However, in our more than 20 years of research and practice experience as social workers in this region, we always encountered a few men in the community who reject existing extreme and rigid gender norms and support gender justice and prevention of domestic violence. Through his extensive field research during conflict and post-conflict situation in Pakistan, Jamal (2018) found that those few men who support gender justice and are actively involved in preventing violence against women have become strong allies in offering and strengthening an "alternative narrative" on gender justice rooted in the socio-cultural and religious understanding of the Pashtun communities.

Jamal (2018) argues that "any social movement for gender justice will be successful only when men are involved in a collective attempt at change. Therefore, we need to mobilize these few men in every community while also building their collective consciousness and passion" (p. 172). In these wars and conflict affected regions, both international and local social workers need to mobilize these few men in every village and community, while also building up their collective consciousness and passion to initiate change. We need to encourage these men by using community-centered research and practice models making them allies for gender justice and against all forms of violence. Violence against women is a men's issue as much as it is a women's issue, as the intergenerational impact of VAW cannot be understated as it impacts on multiple and future generations. As such, violence at home is connected with violence at the community, and ultimately violence at the state level (Jamal, 2020). Based on our many years of field experience as local social workers in the region, we offer following recommendations for International and local social workers working in the wars and conflict affected regions to achieve gender justice and build sustainable peace in society:

Peace, stability, and development is a right and a gift to the devastated people of this region, but it needs to start from home, grow among communities, and be a focal point of policymaking institutions. This gift should be negotiated and offered in such a way in which all segments of society including women, children, and marginalized groups can appreciate it, benefit from it, and celebrate it.


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