Lady health workers sit with their children on Jinnah Avenue in Islamabad on Sunday. — White Star
Lady health workers sit with their children on Jinnah Avenue in Islamabad on Sunday. — White Star

ISLAMABAD: Sumaira Akbar came from Multan to join fellow lady health workers (LHW) at a sit-in on Jinnah Avenue, where she has been camping since Oct 14.

Ms Akbar is one of hundreds of women who have been protesting for five days for a service structure and an increase in salaries to meet the rising inflation.

Sitting on a rug at the edge of D-Chowk, Ms Akbar told Dawn that the protesting workers are facing several challenges. They have no blankets or quilts to protect against the changing weather, no lighting in the absence of streetlights, no access to sanitation facilities and a shortage of drinking water.

“But we are undeterred,” she said.

At the same time, she said, she misses her four-year-old daughter Khadija, who would cuddle with her before falling asleep every night. She said she has spoken to her family regularly since the protest began so she can get updates on her daughter.

Announce to enter Parliament House today

“Everyone told me Khadija misses me. She is not sleeping well, she is not drinking milk properly,” she said.

Ms Akbar is in a similar state. Sleeping outdoors in the chilly October air is a challenge in itself, compounded by the fact that she cannot be with her daughter. Despite the difficulties, she said she remains undaunted.“A service structure and creation of service rules, and an increase in salaries, are our main demands which should be met immediately,” National Programme Health Employees Federation President Rukhsana Anwar, who leads the sit-in, said.

Ms Anwar said, they have no service structure and they are paid little – from Rs20,000 to Rs22,000 other than LHWs from Sindh, who are paid Rs20,000 and another Rs17,000 in the form of a Covid-19 risk allowance.

She said it was decided during a meeting the protesting LHWs held with Punjab Health Secretary Ajmal Bhatti on Sunday that all their demands, including framing a service structure, would be met. But no notification in accordance with that meeting has been issued yet.

Following the meeting and the assurance given by health officials, hundreds of protesters left the venue, assuming the notification would be issued.

“But no notification has been issued so far and the government is now backtracking on the commitment to issue the notification,” she said, adding that the sit-in, where attendance is now thin, would continue.

She said the LHWs have also received threats of departmental action if they do not call off the sit-in.

Fareeda Syed, another protesting LHW, said the protesters have been facing a shortage of food and medicine, among other difficulties. Most important of all, she said, the women do not have access to sanitation and toilet facilities.

“We have to go to different areas for toilet facilities, such as petrol station and metro bus stations,” she said.

Shabizia Anjum, who came from Bagh in Azad Kashmir, said it was shameful that a democratic government had failed to resolve the issues facing daughters of the country, who were on the roads near Parliament House but “no one is paying any heed.”The LHWs were among thousands of government employees who gathered in Islamabad on Wednesday to protest their salaries, pay structures and scale. All the other protesters left after a one-day protest, but the LHWs remained to pressure the government to address their issues.

Announce to enter Parliament House

The LHWs on Sunday announced that they will march towards Parliament House on Monday.

Members of Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) visited them at D-Chowk to express solidarity.

Dr Ashraf Nizami, a representative of the association, said the LHWs should get their due rights as they had been working for many years without getting proper remuneration and facilities.After failing to convince the federal government, especially Ministry of National Health Services (NHS), the protesting workers announced on the fifth day of their sit-in on Sunday that they would enter the Parliament House on Monday.

On Sunday, a representative from the Rawalpindi health department reached D-Chowk and warned the workers that they would be dismissed from service if they did not disperse, however, the protesters refused to leave.

Where are the defenders of human rights. Women are being deprived of basic human rights but there is no one in the federal capital to raise voice for them, said the president of LHWs, Rukhsana Anwar.The protesters had been using restrooms at a fuel station and the metro bus station but later staff from both places told them that they could not use the facility.

Moreover, restaurants were reportedly asked not to sell food to LHWs following which on Friday PPP leader Shazia Marri provided the protesters with food and water.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2020