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Crackdown on nurses

November 26, 2011

THE nurses’ agitation recently on The Mall in Lahore to demand the implementation of higher pay scales promised to them by the health department turned into a spectacle when police and traders attacked the protesters.

Nurses and paramedics of government hospitals were assured of higher wages in May by the Punjab chief minister, who had acted to end the young doctors’ strike for similar reasons.

By any standards, it is shocking that the police and the traders should have attacked the nurses who were protesting peacefully for their demands only because they were blocking a busy crossroads and in doing so hampering the flow of traffic and clientele to the area’s traders. This was not the first time Lahore’s Charing Cross had been blocked by protesters; nor were the nurses the only ones to have flouted the ban traditionally imposed on holding protests on The Mall.

The artery remains a favourite haunt of our pious cousins of angry disposition; never have the police baton-charged them nor the traders rained eggs on them. The lawyers too routinely used the very same stretch of The Mall in their agitation from 2007 to 2009 to restore the judges sacked by the former president Pervez Musharraf. Rights organisations, parliamentarians and anyone with a cause has used the Charing Cross intersection for demonstrations over the years. Why then single out and target the nurses alone?

The reason perhaps lies in the emerging social pathology of citizens today. Noble as it is, nursing, in Punjab in particular, has not been viewed as a much-favoured profession for whatever twisted, inexplicable reason that has attached value judgments and certain myths to it. Secondly, in Punjab, a large number of women nurses come from the low-income Christian households, whose demographics are similar to women police constables, even a notch below. The age-old caste system still holds sway over this segment of society, and social discrimination, even abuse, based on the de facto caste system is rampant.

The police and the traders thus perhaps felt free to target the protesting, unarmed and all-female nurses who had dared to come out in the street without their male chaperons. It was only after some nurses messaged male doctors at their respective hospitals, who came to their rescue, that the manhandling of the protesters stopped. The police, however, registered a case against some 500 nurses, booking over a dozen of them for blocking traffic and flouting the ban on protests on The Mall.

It is common knowledge that nursing staff everywhere and in government hospitals in particularly is overworked and underpaid. Because of long rotational duties, 24 hours a day, it is not practical for many to go home every day even if their homes are located in the city where they work; a large number of nurses indeed are sourced from rural areas and small towns, necessitating their stay in nursing hostels often located on hospital premises or nearby.

Commuting to work out of hostels at a young age gives birth to many a vicious rumour in a society as socially diseased as ours. That because a vast number of nurses are Christian and do not observe purdah makes them ready targets for rampant social if not literal or physical abuse.

The nursing profession, howsoever selfless and noble in its intent and service, direly needs the respect it deserves. This has to be done at multiple levels of society and through concerted government effort, where sensitising public opinion is the key need. Granted not every nurse is Florence Nightingale or Mother Theresa, but such giants in the profession remain the role models for those who know the word ‘gratitude’. Fatima Bint Abdullah is another shining name that comes to mind from Islamic history, and whose nursing services have been the subject of Iqbal’s poetry.

Essays and poems highlighting the need and contribution of nurses throughout human history, and at this time of terrorism and its many casualties, must be made part of school syllabi, TV programming and other such means of effective communication. Attitudes towards the profession will undergo change only when a sustained effort is made to effect such a change.

Nurses in Pakistan happen to be overwhelmingly female and with little voice in society; they are the healings hands that we simply cannot do without. It is impossible to imagine how a medical facility could operate without a trained nursing staff; since tolerance and endurance are the forte of women, it is only natural that most qualified nurses today belong to the fair sex.

They are omnipresent in hospitals and clinics across the country, no matter what the working conditions or the threat posed to their safety. Hundreds of them continue to serve in high-risk parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, serving literally in the eye of the storm that is terrorism, as it has engulfed the country for a few years now. Despite wholesale threats going out to women workers, teachers and the medical staff in terrorism-infested areas, nurses have steadfastly remained on duty.

Also, during the long-drawn agitation and boycott of clinics and hospitals in Punjab by young doctors, who demanded better pay scales and working conditions and eventually got them in May last, nurses were the only medical staff in most hospitals that stayed on duty to serve the patients. It is time a sincere effort is made to address the nurses’ demands, improve their working conditions and institute a mechanism whereby their contribution is recognised and the deserving ones are rewarded for their service to humanity.

The writer is a member of staff.