LAHORE: As evening breaks out, two tired out lady health workers (LHWs) hold the ends of a shabby, faded sheet and spread it on the dusty ground under the shade of the old tree. Like them others too have occupied the Charing Cross roundabout which serves as a convenient place for demonstrators, providing a safe place to stand and shade from the blazing sun. Many of them are sitting cross-legged on their temporary beds, conversing with each other or on their phones. Most are too tired to talk at all. Others – exhausted and fatigued - have resorted to falling asleep on rolled out straw mats, pulling their ‘chadors’ over themselves including their faces. They are seemingly oblivious to the noisy speeches and protest songs being played on top volume.
The women are scattered all over the road in front of the Punjab Assembly. For them, the business like white structure is as inaccessible as it seems, behind gates, barricades and barbed wire. They sit in clusters, the exhausted ones on the outskirts, and the more active ones in the inner circle.
In the midst of them, talking to media and others is Rukhsana Anwar, who is one of the leaders.
In the last protest that took place in 2017, Anwar was at the forefront, demanding arrears to be paid and service structures to be issued. This time again, she is leading from the front. A tall and serious looking woman, Anwar has come back with a vengeance and says they will not move from the road until all their demands are met. She ignites as she talks about blocking the road.
“Is this all that anyone can see? That we have to block a main road to get our demands heard?” she says loudly and emotionally. “Do they believe we like to do this? We also have homes and families!”
As she says this, a man – probably a family member – chimes in with a slogan of ‘shame, shame!’ and the LHWs who surround Rukhsana repeat after him. Someone chants a slogan in her name and then Rukhsana continues.
“We feel angry the way the government representatives, including the health minister, has said that we are blackmailing them,” she says. “Women have travelled here from as far away as Toba Tek Singh, leaving their families behind, to protest. They have slept on the pavements, had nothing to eat as such, no private and hygenic toilets to use and yet shame on the government to say we are blackmailing them.”
Kishwar, who has spent her last 23 years as an LHW, complains of mistreatment even now. “It doesn’t matter how respectable we are, when we go door to door what we hear is: ‘phir a gayee hai?’ [you’re back again]”
For the LHWs money is a huge factor but it is surely not all they want. At Rs1,900 for 14 days – during which they say that they work as hard as they can, from administering polio drops to deliveries, taking care of mothers and dengue fumigation.
On top of all this, they claim, they are not even paid for anti-dengue task. But apart from this, disrespect and other problems irk them equally.
“Last time, I and another worker had to travel to an isolated area without transport; the government does not provide us with transport or security,” says Rafeeqa, 30. “We were attacked by rabid dogs and we managed to escape with a lot of difficulty.” For ‘Madam’ Ruskhsana as she is called, the current Punjab government is ‘just the same’ as the previous one.
“In 2012, a notification was issued, regularising the services of 50,000 workers in the province but was never implemented. Those workers are still on contract. And today, as we ask for our rights, our own health minister has pushed us against the wall calling us blackmailers. If one child contracts polio, the same officials rally around,” she says.
Rukhsana says they want proper implementation of the service structure, the payment of all dues and benefits given to these women who have given their entire lives to this work. During a month’s time frame, approximately 245 to 300 houses are visited. It becomes very difficult especially in areas where population is dense. “And even then we are treated with disrespect and are overworked and underpaid,” says Rafeeqa. “Are we not humans? Do we look like blackmailers?”
As if for dramatic effect, Rafeeqa’s questions hang in the air, and in the background the crowd of women erupt into more slogans. The evening sky turns dark. For many it seems tonight will again be spent here.
Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2019