The women who work in the brick kilns in Pakistan

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Amid the steady hum of chatter exists a silent symphony of suffering where women toil day

(photo: ICC)

and night to meet not only their brick quota, but their growing family’s needs. Yet, as they labor every day to support their families in unforgiving heat, their own well-being fades into the background.

During what should be a beautiful and life-giving time for expecting mothers, these women consistently lack access to proper healthcare during their pregnancies. With each family working at the kilns averaging seven to nine children, women are constantly pregnant. But the emphasis for these mothers is placed on brick output — and their quota doesn’t decrease when they’re pregnant. Due to this, women’s health suffers, and babies, if they live to full term, are often born with health complications.

ICC developed a comprehensive plan to address major issues at the brick kilns and is creating successful livelihood projects to keep families out of the kilns once their debts are paid off. One area of focus is women’s health.

During our last visit to one of the kilns, we met and interviewed women to hear their experiences to better inform our work. The issue was glaring — women at the brick kilns don’t possess the proper knowledge to take care of themselves, which can lead to devastating outcomes.

Maya is 19 years old and has spent the past 14 years working at the brick kilns. Since age 5, she has been immersed in the grueling work of forming bricks with her family.

“The harsh weather and the conditions increase the risk of heat strokes due to the direct heat exposure, both from the sun and from the fiery kiln,” she shared with ICC. Heat strokes and dehydration are frequent issues for many in this environment.

But it’s not just the physical labor that weighs her down. Maya began menstruating at the age of 14 and used an unsanitary cloth, which has led to recurring health issues throughout the years. Each month she endures cramps that are amplified by the heat and physical labor, yet she must endure the pain and continue to meet her daily brick quota.

Girls often experience their first menstrual cycle while they are working at the kilns, and because they’re not in school, they don’t learn sanitary methods to address their monthly needs. The topic is often too taboo to discuss with family, so these young girls are left to take care of their health on their own.

For Meera, another young woman working at the kiln, her pregnancy journey turned into tragedy because of medical misinformation. She was eight months pregnant with her first boy, and despite this, she was still working alongside everyone else forming bricks.

A community midwife known as the Dia Ama visited Meera and gave her medicine to alleviate her pregnancy pains. However, the “medicine” that she took inadvertently led to the miscarriage of her son shortly after.

The demand of the job coupled with the pains of pregnancy and the lack of basic medical knowledge led to the tragic loss of Meera’s son. Mother at the kilns also don’t have an adequate diet while they’re pregnant or nursing, which leads to malnutrition.

Rani, a mother of nine, juggles working at the kiln and caring for her youngest daughter, whose health issues are the result of poor nutrition during pregnancy.

In many cases, women deliver babies in unsanitary conditions, surrounded by disease-carrying bugs. Sometimes, the needs of childbirth demand professional medical attention. But due to the proximity of some kilns from cities, the proper medical attention may be out of reach — especially if it’s an emergency.

Ayesha was midway through her workday when she went into labor. She was taken home, and the Dia Ama arrived to help during labor and delivery. After several hours with no progression, the Dia Ama recommended that Ayesha’s husband take her to the hospital. But when they arrived, it was too late — her baby was stillborn. She now lives with chronic uterine pain as a daily reminder of her heartbreaking loss.

The stories from each of these women underscore a sobering reality: the women of Pakistan’s brick kilns are naïve to the complex challenges and risks that extend far beyond their daily labor. The lack of access to proper healthcare, paired with limited awareness and education amplifies their vulnerabilities, leaving the women susceptible to preventable tragedies during pregnancy. — International Christian Concern