KARACHI, Dec 19: “Words of official condemnation are not enough. We want nothing but security,” chanted a group of lady health workers who had gathered outside the press club on Wednesday to protest the killings of people engaged in the recent polio eradication drive.
Undeterred by the killing of their eight colleagues in targeted attacks across the country over the past three days, the lady health workers said that they wouldn’t boycott the anti-polio drive but pressed the government to address their concerns.
Of the eight people working for the campaign, four women and a man were killed in Karachi, forcing the health authorities to immediately suspend the campaign.
The demonstration organised by All Pakistan Lady Health Workers Employees Association highlighted the many challenges lady health workers and volunteers are facing in their efforts to eradicate polio.
The association demanded that the government arrest the culprits without any delay and announced a five-day mourning plan.
“We lost our colleagues just because the government is indifferent to our problems, which are increasing with each passing day,” observed Rukhsana, a lady health worker (LHW) and the official in charge of a union council area in Bin Qasim Town.
She said: “Both Landhi and Bin Qasim towns are sensitive areas and we were just on the other side of the bridge where our two colleagues were shot dead the other day.
“Men with guns roam the area without any fear and we had informed our superiors about it, but nothing was done.”
Rukhsana was leading a 12-member team of vaccinators when the shooting was carried out in Landhi on Tuesday morning and she was informed over the phone by her seniors to leave the place immediately along with her colleagues.
“You can’t imagine what I, as a supervisor, had to go through as our superiors left us in the middle to fend for ourselves. We are women. We have to think about saving our lives and our dignity, too. A few volunteers of my team couldn’t even afford a cellphone and I had to rush from one street to another, looking for all of them so that we could together flee the area,” she recalled her nightmarish experience.
Nearly all the lady health workers Dawn spoke to complained of misbehaviour in certain areas of the city inhabited by Pakhtuns and said that such an attitude became common after the fake vaccination campaign conducted by Dr Shakeel Afridi in Abbottabad. People looked at them as ‘American agents’ involved in a drive aimed at spreading infertility, they said.
“They have different conspiracy theories in their minds and we have to give them a long explanation. Yet they are not satisfied and ask as to why the government launches eradication drive only for polio, though we suffer from many other diseases and we have no answer to this question,” they said.
The protesters also raised the issue of regularising services of the LHWs. They said they were still waiting for their services being regularised though the government had announced to do the same in July.
Sharing their woes with the media, the LHWs posted in North Nazimabad union council 2 said that a girl who volunteered to be part of the polio eradication drive was recently beaten up by men and women. “No support was provided to us after we brought the incident to the knowledge of our bosses. Not even the family who thrashed the girl was made to apologise to the girl for the insult,” said a participant.
One of the LHWs posted in Paposh Nagar said that one of the volunteers of their team was bitten by a dog a day earlier while going door-to-door for administering polio drops but received no help from officials. “We had to pool money to transport our colleague to hospital. The incident attracted cold response from our bosses,” she said.
None of the workers was satisfied with the remuneration promised for their services. “It is too little in the face of high inflation and the security risks involved, and even that amount is not paid on time.”
“It is Rs250 for volunteers and Rs270 for lady health workers a day. Often, the three-day campaign is extended to six days but the government doesn’t raise the amount,” said Irfana, a lady health worker and a mother of four children.
There was growing concern among the participants about the fate of the polio eradication campaign. Many of them said the task had become too difficult as parents wouldn’t allow their daughters to work as a volunteer anymore.
“You can’t run the drive without volunteers. Their numbers are much bigger than ours. We had to persuade many parents to permit their daughters to work as volunteers but now after these killings, it would become more difficult to convince them,” said Fehmida Bano, the official in charge of Jamshed Town union council 5.