Page last updated at 02:07 GMT, Saturday, 3 July 2010 03:07 UK

The ultimate tragedy of poverty in Pakistan

By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Islamabad

Every few days Pakistan makes the worst kind of headlines: bombings in markets and mosques, battles with the Taleban. But, much less widely reported, the daily lives of millions of Pakistanis are consumed by another problem. They have to cope with desperate poverty. And as one woman's harrowing tale shows, the struggle for some is more than they can bear.

Muzammil
Debt has torn Muzammil and her family's life apart

It was a short life, but one full of hard work and high hopes.

Fourteen-year-old Beenish was so determined to be a nurse or doctor that she usually studied late into the night. When there were power cuts - and there often are here - she used a torch.

She was always near the top of her class.

Beenish died at the hands of her father, Akbar, a rickshaw driver in the eastern city of Lahore.

He fed her and two of her sisters poison, then swallowed some himself. As he poisoned his oldest children, the three youngest slept on a bed beside him.

His wife Muzammil says she was outside getting water while her husband set about murdering the family.

He had sent her to the fridge twice to get her out of the room.

She returned in time to see Kainat, their handicapped seven-year-old daughter, awaken.

Her husband tried to give her poison, too, but the little girl refused saying: "No, it has a bad smell. I don't want to eat it."

Previously people jumped out of buildings, now they just use the poison because it is so cheap
Professor Javed Akram

Seeing what her husband was up to, Muzammil told me she cried out, asking how he could kill his own children, how he could do such a cruel thing.

He replied: "I've given them poison because if we die, they cannot live without us."

Then he said she must take it as well.

Muzammil did not swallow it. Instead she spat it out. That is how she survived the effects of the poison.

'Invisible' poor

After a few days in hospital, she is now in mourning for her daughters, and for the husband she says was always kind and gentle but weighed down by financial pressures and ill health.

"He never did any harm to anyone before," she said, speaking through tears. "He was so caring and loving. There was never any conflict between us."

Women and children receive free food at the shrine of Muslim Saint Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore
In recent years, Pakistan has received billions in the form of aid, loans and debt rescheduling. The hungry might be forgiven for asking where all the money went

But there was a serious disagreement with his family over a debt the couple could not repay.

It was causing rows with Akbar's parents, the last one on the day he died. It was after this he came home and killed half the family.

The sum of money that cost so many lives was 60,000 Pakistani rupees. That is about $700 (£465).

In death, as in life, Pakistan's poor are often invisible.

The story of Akbar and his family was front-page news, but suicides linked to poverty are often relegated to the back pages and marked by just a line or two.

One major newspaper recently reported the deaths of five men in five paragraphs.

'Will of God'

The doctor who treated Muzammil, Professor Javed Akram, sees about 10 cases of poisoning a day. It used to be four or five.

"Previously people jumped out of buildings," he said. "Now they just use poison because it is so cheap."

People living on the streets of Lahore
Many people are struggling to survive on the streets of Lahore

According to Professor Akram, economic pressure is definitely a factor in the deaths. He says most of those who kill themselves are poor.

A well-known human rights campaigner and lawyer, Hina Jilani, says that Pakistan spends too much on defence and too little on defending those in need.

"In all the hysteria about security," she told me, "We've neglected the issue of human security. It's shameful that we are a nuclear state, and we can't feed our own people."

Almost half the population here gets by on just one meal a day, according to the United Nations.

Yet in recent years, Pakistan has received billions in the form of aid, loans and debt rescheduling. The hungry might be forgiven for asking where all the money went.

They probably will not take much comfort in recent statements from their political leaders.

One parliamentarian said the suicides were the will of God.

And Pakistan's information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, advised the poor to hand their children over to children's homes, if they could not feed them.

Continuing care

Muzammil will now be able to provide for her remaining children.

After her story made headlines, she was given a generous grant by the provincial government.

She plans to build a small house and set up a business. Her medical bills are being paid, and her doctor says she will have continuing care.

But she has to live without the husband she loved and her three eldest girls.

She says that in their final days her daughters were unusually attentive to her, telling her to rest and helping out a lot, though they did not usually do much housework.

It was, she said, as if they knew they would soon be taken from her.

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SEE ALSO
Pakistan's poor hit as food prices soar
30 Jun 08 |  Business
Country profile: Pakistan
14 May 11 |  Country profiles


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