‘I will go hungry if I have to’

A Pakistani domestic worker is determined to give her children an education and ensure they are fed, even if means she must sometimes skip meals.

An illustration of a mother in the middle, holding two children, one on either side of her with two roads made of a long receipt diverging in the middle with a plate of food at the end of the left road and pile of two books at the end of the right road. There is also a city silhouette far in the background with the sun shining above.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Aisha Faisal

Age: 27

Occupation: Domestic worker

Lives with: Husband Faisal (27) who drives a rickshaw; daughter Muskan (11); and son Huzaifa (4)

Lives in: A single, open-plan rented room on the top floor of a four-storey building in an informal, low-income settlement in Karachi, Pakistan.

Monthly household income: Aisha, the main breadwinner of the house, earns 30,000 Pakistani rupees ($104) a month. Faisal, who has been struggling to find passengers, normally brings home around 10,000 rupees ($35). In a good month, their combined monthly income is 40,000 rupees ($138). The median salary for 2023 in Pakistan is 76,858 rupees ($266) per month.

Total expenses for the month: 53,500 rupees ($185). In July, Aisha went 13,500 rupees ($47) over her carefully planned 40,000-rupee ($138) monthly budget because of additional school-related expenses and an unforeseen rickshaw servicing bill.

A photo of Aisha with her hand on the fridge next to her.
Aisha and her only prized appliance: a second-hand fridge she purchased from an employer on monthly instalments four years ago [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]
Aisha and her only prized appliance: a second-hand fridge she purchased from an employer on monthly instalments four years ago [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

For nearly 20 years without fail, 27-year-old Aisha has woken up at 7am every day to prepare breakfast for her family and do other household chores before getting ready to go to work. She did it as a child when she missed out on going to school, then as a teenager when she was married to an abusive husband. She does it still as a mother of two as she tries to build a new life with her second husband, Faisal.

Aisha, who was born into a family with 10 children, inherited her occupation as a domestic worker from her ailing mother when she was just eight years old.

“I remember I would accompany my mother when she went to clean people’s homes,” Aisha recalls. She shrugs and smiles. “Whenever she would feel ill and couldn’t do the work herself, she asked me to help her out, and that’s how I got started.”

By the time Aisha turned 15, her parents had arranged for her to get married.

Her husband, however, turned out to be abusive and suffered from a drug addiction. So after five years of marriage, Aisha divorced him, returning to her parents’ home with her then two-year-old daughter Muskan. Six years ago, Aisha married Faisal. The couple welcomed a son, Huzaifa, two years later.

“Faisal is a good man. He looks after my daughter as his own,” says Aisha as she looks over at him and the children who are huddled on their second-hand queen size bed, which also serves as the only seating area, watching funny TikTok videos on Faisal’s phone.

A photo of Aisha and Faisal standing on a balcony.
Aisha and Faisal are determined to give their children the opportunities that they did not have [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

‘It’s painful when I have to pick one’

Aisha and Faisal belong to Pakistan's minority ethnic Bengali community, which has long faced social challenges and discrimination in the country, especially since the Liberation War of 1971 that led to the nation's bifurcation and the creation of Bangladesh. Many belonging to this marginalised community are stateless, and women are often pushed into low-paying, unregulated domestic cleaning jobs.

Like Aisha, Faisal started working as a child. He was forced to leave school and work after his father abandoned him and his mother. “He is uneducated … which is why it’s hard for him to find a good job,” Aisha explains.

“The life we have right now is no way to live,” she says. Aisha is therefore determined for her children to have opportunities that she and her husband did not have and will do whatever it takes to ensure they go to school, even if the family barely gets by on their current income.

“My children’s education - their school fees, course books and uniforms - is always my top priority,” she says, while perched on the bed which covers two-thirds of the apartment floor space. On several occasions, Aisha has come close to not being able to pay Muskan’s school fees because she had to dip into this money to buy food, she shares, tearing up. Meanwhile, Huzaifa started going to kindergarten this year, adding to the family's expenses. “My children’s health and nutrition are more important and it’s painful when I have to pick one [education or health] over the other,” she says.

There have been days, Aisha admits, when she and Faisal have had to forgo their meals to ensure the children are fed and can go to school.

A photo of Aisha cleaning a carpet using a broom with chairs around her and tables and shelves on the walls around her.
Aisha's work includes cleaning, dusting and ironing clothes [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

‘Constantly calculating’

Aisha currently leaves home at 8am and returns at 4pm, dividing her eight-hour work day between five homes where she is employed to cook, clean, do the laundry and run other errands six days a week. “This year, one of the families I used to work for has left Pakistan and immigrated to the US,” she says. “Another home where I used to wash clothes has bought a washing machine so they’re not paying me to do that anymore, so I’ve lost that part of my income which, for example, would have paid for my children’s snacks for two weeks.”

According to Aisha, each task that she is hired to do has a pre-arranged monthly rate. For example, she used to earn 2,000 rupees ($7) for laundering by hand and now no longer does. “This is how I live my life, by constantly calculating and readjusting my budget,” she explains.

Although she asked her employers for a raise this year, none has clearly committed to increase the pay because everyone is stretched out with the soaring inflation over the year affecting everyone’s spending. Aisha is careful about insisting because she fears losing the work she has. “Competition is very high and there are desperate people willing to work for even less,” she says.

Rising living costs and deteriorating finances have compelled Aisha and Faisal to completely cut out any personal expenses and weekend outings from their lives. On occasion, the family would jump in Faisal’s rickshaw on a Saturday evening and go for a long drive, sometimes stopping at a roadside cafe to eat burgers instead of having dinner at home. “This year, we’ve completely stopped doing that,” Aisha explains, biting her lip.

An illustration of a bar graph indicating inflation with the left bar slightly smaller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

‘It’s become impossible’

Another expense Aisha regrets cutting out over the last few months is her children’s snacks. “It’s become impossible to buy biscuits, candy or ramen noodles,” she sighs. “The children really enjoyed them.”

Washing the last of the rice in her pantry as she begins to prepare dinner for her family, Aisha looks out the small window that provides a faint current of air in the otherwise muggy apartment. She sneaks a look at her children and wipes her eyes with her scarf.

“I earn 28,000-30,000 rupees ($97-$104) working at my full capacity. Last year, I made a little less than that, but it was easier to manage these expenses. I would go to the market [once a month] with 10,000 rupees ($35) and come home with bags full of groceries,” Aisha explains. “This year, even if I go with more cash, it feels like I’m coming back home with only half a month’s supplies.”

Pakistan has been in economic turmoil all year with an acute balance of payments crisis as it struggled to service massive external debt and crushing inflation. The government is hopeful that the long-awaited bailout deal with the IMF will stabilise the economy.

For now, the economic situation continues to squeeze Aisha and her family. “All we have left is our dignity and faith in God, nothing else,” she says.

Over the course of a month, from July 1  to August 1, 2023, as part of a collaborative project, Aisha Faisal tracked her family's monthly expenses with reporter Saad Zuberi.

Here are the expenses that tested Aisha’s finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of a family of four sitting on a bed.
The family lounges on the only bed in the house that also serves as the sitting area [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]
The family lounges on the only bed in the house that also serves as the sitting area [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Groceries: ‘A year since I bought fruit’

Groceries, much like every other expense, have to be meticulously managed by Aisha just so she’s able to put food on the table until the very end of the month. But her budget has increasingly taken a hit due to rising food costs and Faisal having trouble in recent months finding customers.

“Groceries are the hardest because I can’t compromise on nutrition, especially with children,” she says with a nervous smile, pointing towards the small nook that serves as her kitchen.

Aisha says she reserved two-thirds of her extremely tight 7,000-rupee ($24) food budget in July to buy just three staples: flour for chapatis, rice and unbranded cooking oil. All these items have gone up in price in the past year and she has had to cut down on quantities. “Last year, I would normally buy four litres of packed, branded cooking oil every month for the same price, but now I only buy three and try to make it stretch,” she explains.

A photo of groceries with grains, spices and vegetables.
A single weekly trip to the market for some basic groceries have started to cost more than Aisha used to spend last year over two weeks [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Together, Aisha and Faisal have had to make the tough call of cutting down on fresh milk, which has increased from nearly 90 rupees ($0.31) per litre to an unmanageable 230 rupees ($0.80) per litre over the last 12 months. They simply no longer can afford their toddler Huzaifa drinking a glass every day. Tea has become the alternative. “He drinks a cup of milk tea every day like us and the litre lasts us a week, if I’m careful.”

Meat also is a luxury they can only afford in a very limited quantity a couple of nights a month.

“The real luxury for us is fruit,” Aisha says. “Pakistan is blessed with so many wonderful fruits and we watch them being sold everywhere when we step out of the house, but we can’t eat them,” she explains. "I can’t remember the last time I bought fruit … It has definitely been more than a year.”

The cost of food in Pakistan increased 39.54 percent in July 2023 over the same month the previous year. Food inflation in Pakistan reached an all-time high of 48.65 percent in May this year. 

Muskan reads the Quran as Aisha looks on
Muskan helps her younger brother with his homework [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Children’s education: ‘An expense I am willing to bear’

It is about 7pm, and Muskan ushers Huzaifa, who has been playing with his neighbourhood friends outside the main door, back into the apartment. She sets up a plastic blue table on the bed and pulls out a workbook from a canvas bag. It is time for Huzaifa to finish his homework with the help of his big sister.

“I want my kids to study and get respectable jobs in offices so they lead better lives,” Aisha says as she watches Muskan hold Huzaifa’s hand and show him how to write the English alphabet.

One of the biggest financial worries Aisha faces each month is ensuring she has enough money set aside to pay for her daughter’s madrassa, the religious boarding school she attends which also offers courses in English, maths and science. Muskan aspires to become a teacher, and Aisha wants to make sure she can go to college to realise this dream.

From June 2022 until May 2023, which marked the institute’s academic year, Aisha paid a 3,500-rupee ($12) monthly fee. This covered Muskan’s tuition, hostel accommodation and three meals a day. On Fridays, she would come home for the weekend. At the start of this academic year in June, an increase of 1,500 rupees ($5.20) in the fees was announced, bringing the monthly expense to 5,000 rupees ($17).

“The madrassa is very secure and has a good reputation, which is why I don’t want to send her elsewhere that may be cheaper,” Aisha explains. “It will be difficult, but it is an expense I am willing to bear.”

With Huzaifa reaching school-going age, however, there are new expenses to worry about. The monthly kindergarten fee is 2,500 rupees ($8.65), and she has to pack him a decent lunch every day.

Every Monday morning, Aisha also sends Muskan back to school with toiletry sachets for the week and whatever snacks her budget allows at the time. Once a year, Muskan requires a new uniform, bedding, cutlery and plates.

She had to pay for some of that in June and was able to split a 10,000-rupee ($35) annual fee over June and July. “So things are extra tight this month,” Aisha explains.

Aisha was hoping to buy new uniforms for the children but was unable to afford them. Muskan had outgrown hers while Huzaifa needs one for kindergarten. “Muskan is very mature for her age. She understands our situation and doesn’t complain,” Aisha says. “For instance, her course books for the year are too expensive. I was only able to spare 1,200 rupees ($4.15) so we only bought some of the books and told her to wait another month for the rest. Hopefully, the teachers won’t bother her too much about it and she’ll be able to share with some of her friends until then.”

July 2022: 3,500 rupees ($12) for Muskan’s monthly school fee
July 2023: Muskan and Huzaifa’s school fees, along with the second half of Muskan’s annual fees and some of her course books: 11,200 rupees ($39)

A photo of a shelf on a wall with two fans attached to the wall, below the shelf, with a wardrobe on the wall next to it with a variety of things on it including a lamp and a boombox.
Rent for the family's one-room home has gone up in the past year as have electricity bills [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Rent and utilities: ‘Always just one bill away from being evicted'

“Being poor means you have very little wiggle room. There are no safety nets. You are always just one bill, one payment away, from being evicted or having your electricity cut off,” Aisha declares with a laugh. She quickly explains this is how she copes. “When you’re in our position, you have to laugh through these tough times and take it one day at a time otherwise you won’t survive.”

The family moved into their current home, the studio with an attached bathroom, two years ago, and with a growing toddler, it is only a matter of time before they outgrow the space. Last year, they paid 8,000 rupees ($28) a month in rent. In May, the landlord increased the amount to 10,000 rupees ($35).

In the absence of any formal documentation, as in their case, there is no protection against disputes or unreasonable rent demands. Aisha and Faisal are under constant pressure to pay rent on time and if they don’t pay by the fifth of each month, she says, the landlord starts to hassle them. “He constantly threatens to throw us out,” Aisha explains.

WYMW - Pakistan
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

The uninsulated apartment is on the top floor so it gets extremely hot in the summer especially with temperatures soaring past 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and without fans during the long power outages which have become a norm across Karachi in recent years. Electricity bills have also gone up. Last July, they paid 1,200 rupees ($4.12) in electricity bills, but this year, they received a bill for 2,000 rupees ($6.92).

Last year, owing to persistent power outages, they used some of their savings to buy a solar battery powered fan. The only appliance in the kitchen is a small fridge, which Aisha says she sometimes switches off to save on power.

Moreover, for nearly 20 days, they haven’t had running water in the house even though they pay for it at the start of every month along with the rent. They had to fork out an additional 800 rupees ($2.77) for a month’s water supply even though the utility had already been paid for. “We just had a fight with the landlord about this the other night and once again he threatened to throw us out. There’s no shortage of tenants. We’re dispensable.”

July 2022: 9,200 rupees ($32) for rent and utility bills
July 2023: 12,800 rupees ($44)

A photo of a four different types of medicine, three types are pills in their containers and one is in a tube.
Buying the medicines and vitamins prescribed by the doctor when Aisha fell sick in July meant foregoing some other household expenses [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Healthcare: ‘I have also started falling sick’

Karachi has several government and NGO-run facilities that provide free medical care to anyone who is unable to afford treatment. However, in a megacity of around 19 million people, accessing one of these facilities means contending with large crowds and long waiting lists.

This is hardly practical for Aisha, who works constantly and although her tight budget hardly allows her the luxury of visiting a private hospital she must do so several times a year when Huzaifa is sick. “One visit to the doctor will set us back a couple of thousand rupees, easily,” she explains.

Faisal, who has been driving a rickshaw in Karachi for 10 years, is allergic to dust and has frequent sinus problems. His arm injury from a road accident a couple of years ago also still affects him. The arm gets dislocated if he lifts any weight, and the doctor has prescribed regular physiotherapy, which they cannot afford.

Meanwhile, the physical work Aisha does is starting to affect her health. “I have also started falling sick,” she says.

Besides persistent lower back pain, which she is forced to ignore, Aisha fell sick with a fever twice in July. When she finally mustered the courage to visit a doctor, they ran some blood tests which cost her 2,500 rupees ($8.65), diagnosed her as severely anaemic, and gave her a prescription costing another 2,000 rupees ($6.97). “But there is a lot more to be done before I can afford to get proper medical attention for myself,” Aisha says.

July 2022: Roughly 2,500 rupees ($8.65) for doctor visits and medication for the family.
July 2023: 4,500 rupees ($16)

A photo of Aisha holding her child's hand.
Aisha gets an excited Huzaifa ready for his new school. Last year, Aisha had to take out a loan to pay for life-saving medical care for Huzaifa [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Loan Repayments: ‘This loan has taken over our lives’

“Our life is defined by loans,” both Aisha and Faisal, who sit cross-legged on the bed, declare in unison as they look at each other anxiously and the children play around them. “The last week of the month is always the hardest.”

Every month for the last couple of years, the couple has had to borrow upwards of 5,000 rupees ($17) from friends and family members just to fill the gaps. “We’re afraid if the loans continue like this, we’re afraid everyone will start avoiding us!” Aisha says.

Aisha prefers asking her mother or siblings when she needs a loan, however, this has recently become a source of tension within the family as savings decline and every household fights its own financial battles. Her second option when it becomes impossible to make ends meet, is requesting an advance from one of her employers.

In January last year, Huzaifa fell sick with a stomach infection and began passing blood. After spending a futile day trying to get medical attention at a government hospital in hopes of free treatment, she decided to take him to a private hospital where she was told that Huzaifa’s life was at risk due to severe dehydration. Huzaifa ended up spending one week in hospital which cost a staggering 150,000 rupees ($519). “You have to understand what this amount means to me. I have never had that much money in my hand at the same time in my entire life!” Aisha explains.

She ended up borrowing the amount from one of her employers who agreed to what seemed like a manageable repayment plan at the time. “This loan has taken over our lives,” Aisha sighs. “And it keeps cutting into our monthly budget.”

She has been paying the amount back in monthly instalments of 5,000 rupees ($17) for the past 18 months, and she still has a whole year to go before it is completely paid off.

July 2022: A 120,000 rupee ($415) outstanding loan (80 percent remaining after six months).
July 2023: 60,000 rupees ($207) (40 percent remaining after 18 months).

A photo of Faisal standing next to his rickshaw with shops in the background.
Faisal with his rickshaw at the parking spot outside their home. He pays 2,000 rupees ($7) a month for parking and, more importantly, security. Theft and vandalism in the area are quite common [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Rickshaw fuel and maintenance: A burden

Bought second hand nearly 10 years ago, Faisal’s rickshaw has become more of a burden than a source of income for the family. Summer months, in particular, are tougher than usual. The three-wheeler breaks down constantly, requiring regular maintenance costing more than the income it generates. In July, one of the rickshaw’s wheels burst, and when Faisal took it to the mechanic, he was informed that it would need complete replacement, along with new brake shoes and an oil change.

According to Faisal and Aisha, the same fixes used to cost them half the amount last year. “It was devastating because this month has been exceptionally bad,” Faisal says, scratching the fabric of his worn-out jeans. “I thank God on the days I earn enough to cover the cost of petrol I’m wasting looking for work. I should be running the house instead of my wife, and this weighs heavily on me.”

Faisal, who works 10-12 hour shifts every day in Karachi’s scorching heat desperately looking for customers, calls his income “hawai”, which loosely translates to “up in the air” or “uncertain”. In July, after working nearly 270 hours, he earned a total of 18,000 rupees ($62). After paying for fuel, secure parking, repairs and maintenance, he was just left with 5,000 rupees ($17).

Petrol prices have fluctuated throughout the year with the government announcing price hikes of up to 20 rupees ($0.07) a litre within a month, then reducing the price, before increasing it again. This has left people like Faisal who depend on fuel to earn an income confused and struggling to cope.

But it is not just fuel prices that have rickshaw drivers like him worried, Faisal explains.

“Services like Uber and Careem charge [about] 500 rupees ($1.73) for a ride that would cost 400 rupees ($1.38) in a rickshaw. So, people who can afford it prefer to use an air-conditioned car over a rickshaw. This has driven rickshaw drivers out of work completely.”

August 1, 2022: 227.19 rupees ($0.79) for a litre of fuel ($2.99 a gallon)
August 1, 2023: 272.95 rupees ($0.94)

A photo of Aisha cooking dinner in her kitchen.
Aisha prepares dinner in her kitchen [Saad Zuberi/Al Jazeera]

Five quick questions for Aisha:

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? I have not been able to buy any meat this month.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I had to postpone buying both my children’s course books and school uniforms. My son has just started going to nursery and I’m hoping the teacher will let him sit in class in his regular clothes for a while as it will buy me time to save some money.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Muskan and Huzaifa’s school fees, and a few books I was able to buy for my daughter.

4. When finances get tough - what advice do you have? Be patient and pray. There’s not much else we can do when things get really tough. And they have been that way for a while and [are] getting worse by the day!

5. What’s your biggest money worry? Not being able to afford my children’s education. It has come very close several times but we somehow manage every time by the grace of Allah. I will go hungry if I have to but I will do everything to educate my children. I’m also always worried about not being able to pay rent.

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? Knowing where to buy cheaper groceries is always helpful. We sometimes travel an hour just to buy the essentials at a slightly lower rate. Every rupee saved goes towards more food or other important expenses.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera