SIRIN VALLEY, Pakistan (Reuters) - Sitting on the floor of an earthquake-damaged house, 25 women from Jigal village in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province listen to a veterinarian doctor tell them about animal husbandry.
For a community that lives off its livestock, caring for animals hasn't been a strong point in the villages of Pakistan's Sirin Valley.
It is only in the wake of last year's horrendous earthquake that some fresh ideas have arrived to shake up a community that has been following the same wasteful practices for generations.
While the October 8 quake killed 73,000 people, a lesser-known statistic is the one for farm animals -- a main source of income and nutrition for the highland communities of Pakistani Kashmir and Mansehra district of Frontier province.
Around 250,000 buffalo, cows, goats and sheep are reckoned to have perished in the disaster.
Many animals were killed by landslides while grazing, while others died when their dry-stone and concrete barns caved in.
In communities like Jigal it meant around 70 percent of their animals died. With them went the supplies of milk, butter and yoghurt crucial to the diets of people of the area.
But shockingly, even without a quake, these communities could count on 50 percent of the beasts dying from disease, due in large measure to the ignorance of their owners.
Fauzia, one of just five women in the village who can read, said she had learned a lot attending the classes.
"We own two buffalo and four goats. Our buffalo always had swellings in their stomach and I didn't know what to do. I have now learned to care better for them by improving their hygiene," she said.
WOMEN TEND ANIMALS
Around 120,000 people live in the picturesque Sirin valley, and most have stayed, living in makeshift shelters, constructed from timber and corrugated sheets salvaged from their ruined houses and protected by tarpaulins and mud walls.
As in many parts of the region, it is the women who look after the animals.
"In this area the men usually go to the big cities to work," said Mohammad Banaras Khan, manager of livelihood projects for U.S.-based aid agency Mercy Corps.
"It is the women who are left at home to take care of their livestock that is also a source of income for them, in fact the only source in most rural areas," he said.
Usually their conservative ways prevent the women from mixing with strangers, but some things have changed after the quake.
"We realised if we didn't take care of our animals and didn't allow our women to learn it would become difficult to survive with dignity after the destruction in this area," said village head Mohammad Sarwar.
During the morning, women with infants attend classes run by veterinarians and female field officers, while their animals graze in the pasture.
Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corps' senior global communications officer, said the idea behind the project, which has targeted 30 villages in the Sirin and Kooch valleys, was to empower women and help families become self-sufficient and less dependent on aid given after the quake.
Many villagers had sold off their animals out of desperation following the quake, but other NGOs have donated some 6,000 goats and 600 buffalo, and people have been encouraged to exchange cash vouchers, given by the government, for more livestock.
Dr Ejaz-ul-Haq, from the British animal welfare organization the Brooke Hospital for Animals, which works in conjunction with Mercy Corps, explained how the women were being taught with charts and illustrations, and shown how to vaccinate their animals and prepare them for the winter.
"It snows a bit in this area and it gets very cold. But we know now what to do to keep our animals safe," said Kausar Shaheen, half of her face covered in veil.
"We know now how to get more milk from our cows, and in turn butter and cheese, which is a major source of food and money for us," Shaheen said, her two-year daughter clinging to her baggy shalwar, or trousers.
Their female instructor, Lubna Masood, said the women were even being taught about artificial insemination so that they could breed stronger, more productive animals.
"These women are very keen to learn and intelligent. They are eager to know how to produce better livestock, which can give more income to sustain their homes," she said.