'We are protecting children from polio at the cost of our lives'

Published December 15, 2014
Lady Health Workers stage a protest demonstration over the government's failure to provide them effective security. - Reuters/File
Lady Health Workers stage a protest demonstration over the government's failure to provide them effective security. - Reuters/File
A health worker administers polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign. — AFP/File
A health worker administers polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign. — AFP/File

QUETTA: In their struggle to protect children from the crippling disease, female immunisation workers have faced the brunt of attacks aimed at polio teams in Balochistan. Threats and intimidation have been a constant in their lives and the recent killings of polio workers in the southwestern province have invoked a deep sense of insecurity among the female volunteers and lady health workers.

"We are protecting children from polio at the cost of our lives," Sabeeha Begum, 38, a lady health worker in Quetta told Dawn. Sabeeha has participated in almost all anti-polio campaigns in Quetta and has been engaged in the campaign for over a decade.

On November 26, gunmen killed four polio workers, including three women, in the Eastern Bypass area of Quetta. The attack took place in the provincial capital in broad daylight and despite tall claims of tight security on part of the government.

“Our lives are at risk because it is an extremely dangerous job,” Sabeeha Begum said.

Polio teams have been attacked in the Quetta, Pishin and Loralai districts of Balochistan in the recent past. And while eradication of polio appears to be a challenge for the concerned quarters, women remain at the forefront in the battle against the crippling disease.

The latest murders of polio workers in Quetta were followed soon after by an announcement of a boycott of the anti-polio campaign in Balochistan by Lady Health Workers (LHW). The LHWs staged a protest demonstration outside the Quetta Press Club and chanted slogans against the assailants and against the law enforcement agencies for their failure to provide protection.

Also read: The polio pariahs

“Unknown men had also warned us not to take part in the anti-polio campaign,” Fauzia Malik, one of the protesting health workers told Dawn.

Most of the women partaking in the anti-polio campaign come from poverty-stricken families and have been administering the vaccine to children below the age of five years. They are paid a nominal amount of each day's work but most of the female volunteers and LHWs complain that the health department adopts delaying tactics when it comes to payment.

“Daily they are supposed to pay us 250 rupees and we receive this amount after three months,” Sabeeha Begum, who is a mother to four daughters and a son, complains.

Polio workers, male and female, have always been escorted by police and Levies personnel in Quetta and other towns of Balochistan during vaccination campaigns. However, in spite of the tight security, they still come under attack.

The recent attack that claimed four lives had a far-reaching impact on the overall anti-polio campaign in the province. According to sources in the Balochistan Health Department, the number of female volunteers in Sariab and other troubled areas of Quetta significantly dropped after the incident.

“Female volunteers refused to be part of the campaign after the killings,” a source in the Balochistan Health Department said.

“There are threats looming against us everywhere during the campaign,” Humera Javed, a polio volunteer whose brother, also a health worker, was killed during the campaign on November 26, told Dawn.

The female workers are always veiled so that the parents cannot raise objections over their attire during the campaign.

More on this: Parents deprive 10,000 children of polio drops

“We always try to make sure polio drops are administered to every child,” Nasima Bibi, who has been partaking in the campaign for the past three years, told Dawn.

During the campaign, some parents pass humiliating remarks at the immunisation volunteers and health workers.

“You cannot imagine the humiliation we face daily and during the administration of our work,” said Sadia Ahmed, a polio volunteer.

Refusal on part of parents remains one of the underlying reasons behind the increase in polio cases in Balochistan and it is believed that most of the victims in polio cases are minor girls.

“I get ignored and humiliated on a daily basis,” said a crippled Niamat Bibi, a polio victim in Balochistan’s Killa Abdullah district. Bibi was married three years back and is now a mother of one.

Bibi, however, refused to be photographed because of strict tribal system.

During 2011, 73 cases of polio virus were reported from Balochistan, with Killa Abdullah, the district sharing a border with Afghanistan, faring the worst with 22 cases that year.

So far this year, 17 cases of polio have been reported from Quetta and other parts of Balochistan. With this figure from the Unicef, the provincial government has announced an emergency to eradicate the virus and the success of its campaign depends on Lady Health Workers who play an important role in administering polio drops to children.

“We are aware of the dangers and the meager amount being paid to female workers,” Rehmat Baloch, the Balochistan Health Minister said. Baloch said daily wages of the LHWs would be increased and efforts would be made to guard them during future campaigns.

However, lady health workers engaged in the anti-polio campaign appear to be unsatisfied with the officials' assurances.

“Masked assailants suddenly come and attack our colleagues, what is the government doing?” lamented Humera.

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