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Two Rangers mobiles, 40 armed policemen and plain clothes intelligence officers led our team of polio workers through the narrow streets of Landhi in Karachi. Naseem, a lady health worker with a larger than life personality literally led from the front and commanded the 30-woman team. I watched in awe, filming them, as they knocked on countless doors that warm afternoon.

Many of the doors they knocked on that afternoon did not open. Instead a loud voice from inside would bellow: “We don’t want vaccination, our husbands have said no,” but Naseem and her team would persevere. “Just listen to me once, she would call out from outside, just once and then you can refuse.” Reluctantly a few doors would open and she would quickly drink a polio drop in front of the nervous mother and say, “I have three children, I would never harm someone else’s children.” Sometimes, the mother’s would agree but most of the time, they would say that their husbands would get very angry and regretfully close the door.

Naseem would turn to us on camera, shrug and say, “Tomorrow, I’ll be back; one of these days, they will agree,” and then with a smile she would carry on.

Naseem became a lady health worker in 1994 when she dropped out of nursing school. She was a young mother and the pressures of living in a joint family system weighed on her. She chose to join the ranks of lady health workers. More than a hundred thousand women choose this profession in Pakistan and are paid about Rs250 a day.

Ironically, Naseem wasn’t killed for being a polio worker; but fell victim to domestic violence

Her family did not take to her career choice and she often found her bag of medicines thrown out in the street. Lady health workers also provide family planning advice, which her family did not approve of. She fought on and eventually won, convincing them that their job was equally important as that of doctors, because they had access to women, which many doctors unfortunately did not. They could really make a difference.

I arrived one morning to have breakfast at Naseem’s house in Safoora Goth. She was up early, getting her children ready for school. Her husband, Muneer, was conspicuously missing. I was immediately struck by the love and respect the children had for their mother. Just a few weeks ago, Naseem’s colleagues had been brutally gunned down in Karachi on a polio drive. Her children were nervous about her work. More than 40 polio workers have been attacked or killed in recent years across the country. Ayesha, her 10 year old daughter begged her mother not to go to work that day and later told me that she wished her mother had an easier job. Naseem quietly reassured her, “All those other children need me, we can’t afford to have crippled children; we need to make everyone healthy.” 

As breakfast continued, Naseem chatted with me, her dedication inspiring, her commitment contagious. “I don’t know if I will come back or not, and I don’t know if I will see my children or not. I am ready for that.”

As breakfast continued, Naseem chatted with me, her dedicatiomn inspiring, her commitment contagious. “I don’t know if I will come back or not, and I don’t know if I will see my children or not. I am ready for that.”

I was profiling five people from across Karachi in a series titled, I heart Karachi, filming men and women who risk their lives every day for the betterment of their communities and who are rarely acknowledged for their work. Naseem, being one of those countless women across Pakistan; who carry on with their jobs, often on the frontlines, enabling others to lead a better life.

It was also clear from the very beginning that Naseem was the sole breadwinner in her family. Her husband only appeared when he needed something from the family, usually money. Theirs was not a happy marriage and it was clear that she played the role of both parents in her house. “My mother wakes up early and works late hours to make sure we have the best of everything,” Shahid the eldest son said. “No one I know has a mother as brave as mine,” he smiled with pride.

“My sons will go to college, they will make something out of themselves, they need to …” she often said.

Ironically, Naseem did not die while giving polio drops. Three weeks ago, her husband shot her four times after a domestic altercation. Details are hazy, some say it was jealousy, others say it was a property dispute. Like countless people serving Karachi, Naseem left the city silently. Her three children shocked by the brutality of their father are still struggling to fill the large void in their lives. Her husband is on the run and has not yet been arrested.

Karachi lost one of its finest that day, a selfless worker for the city whose words still ring in my ears, “No, I am not nervous. I am happy to go to dangerous areas, I am not afraid of anything. I am a soldier.”

Indeed you were ....

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 22nd, 2014