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Karachi's ghost women; the forgotten "mad women"

A couple of months back I came across a page on instagram where this digital artist illustrated artwork titled “Karachi’s ghost women”, showing women trapped behind the gates of Bilquis Edhi center in Karachi. There was no caption explaining the artwork and I was curious to know the story behind it. I searched and found a documentary on youtube uploaded this year and it was a heart wrenching watch to say the least.

Asia’s largest Asylum is located in Karachi for women. The Edhi foundation has been administering this Psychiatric facility under the name “Bilquis Edhi House”. It is the only Psychiatric facility in Pakistan that offers free services to its patients. This facility consists of 1,700 women mainly from the lower socio-economic class, each having their own reasons to be admitted. The disturbing part is that many of these women are not mentally ill, rather they get admitted against their will due to them being victims of violence perpetrated by their own family. These women are beaten and mistreated by their husbands, stigmatised by their own families and in-laws. Many women who live in the Asylum are cut off from family ties, as they are blamed and bear the brunt of their marriage failing. The people outside consider them as being “locked away” like ghosts, hence the name “Karachi’s ghost women”.

The Head of Bilquis Edhi house, Dr Naseem Atiq, said “Many women who are currently in the foundation reach a point where they cannot cope with the abuse anymore, and they develop personality disorders. In the end, they can't be kept at home anymore”. She also stressed upon how many of these families are ignorant of mental health issues as they do not consider it an illness worth consulting a doctor or therapist. The facility itself lacks in providing access to proper treatment and care for these patients, as they are kept in cramped, unhygienic and cruel conditions. Not enough beds are provided for these women, the sewage systems are not well maintained, many patients are left neglected and there is a lack of well trained qualified doctors. Many women are left untreated for years in this facility, the numbers keep growing to a point that it has become a “madhouse” for them, where many wish to flee and return to their families.

In the documentary I remember two prominent cases, one is of Nadjma. She was brought to the centre by her husband in 2003 as he had considered her a burden as her mental health was deteriorating by the abuse he perpetuated himself. After 12 years of living in the facility, she was well enough and was brought back home by her caretakers from the foundation. She met her mother who could not recognise her, and upon asking whether she wanted to keep her daughter, she refused and said “she's useless, she can't work in the house, no man would want her”. Nadjma was shattered as her own mother did not want her around after her constant efforts pleading to be home again.

Another devastating example is of Nazish, whose family beat and starved her. She was in the facility for 19 years. In an interview she expressed how loneliness, neglect and the poor treatment facilities and living conditions made her overall well being worse, as she wished to be free from the confinement of these four walls.

From this documentary we can draw a conclusion that there is no accountability, recognition or understanding of domestic abuse, mental health issues and training of health workers. Our establishment’s lack of prioritising women’s health and safety leads to these devastating stories of women, especially in economically and socially disadvantaged communities, having to struggle just for existing.

Heres the link for the documentary:

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