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April 27, 2007

Pakistan: Only Women Can Rescue Women

female rescue worker in pakistan climbing up mountain

Photo Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Polaris

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It's no secret that the terrain here, while stunningly beautiful, can quickly turn deadly. Northern Pakistan is home to five of the world's highest peaks, including the massive, snowcapped K2, which, at 28,250 feet, is dominated only by Mount Everest. In this region, three of the earth's greatest mountain ranges — the Himalayas, Karakoram Range, and Hindu Kush — originate, and the land is rarely still. Avalanches, landslides, tremors, and earthquakes are all a regular part of life.

At the bottom of the mountain, Alam and Fatima remove their climbing gear. The sense of urgency has dissipated, and the women eagerly rehash the details of their latest rescue mission. Fortunately, this has only been a training exercise: The child on Alam's back is a dummy made to weigh the same as an 8-year-old; the man in the stretcher is a community volunteer. But the dangers of mountain rescuing are real, and trial runs are vital to keeping the women's skills honed. Despite being unpaid volunteers, Alam and Fatima know they may be called upon at any moment, as they were in October 2005, when Pakistan was hit with the worst earthquake in its history.

Both Alam, 30, and Fatima, 35, are members of a search-and-rescue program for Focus Humanitarian Assistance, an emergency-response group affiliated with the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of international private agencies working to improve living conditions and opportunities in the developing world. In addition to earthquake victims, Alam and Fatima's team in Gilgit (a 15-hour drive from Pakistani capital, Islamabad) have also rescued victims of flash floods and mudslides. "Mudslides crush and suffocate — people rarely survive," says Alam, who was called to assist during one triggered by last summer's monsoon. "Houses were covered with 12 feet of mud."

Alam and her colleagues in Pakistan and Tajikistan are the first Muslim women in today's Islamic world to risk their lives this way to save others. "Our men can be very conservative," says Alam. "They won't let a man who is not a relative touch their women" — even if it means letting her die.

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