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Volunteers shift a body of a polio vaccination worker, at a hospital following an attack by gunmen. – Photo by AFP
Volunteers shift a body of a polio vaccination worker, at a hospital following an attack by gunmen. – Photo by AFP

KARACHI, Dec 18: The killing of four women involved in efforts to protect children from a crippling disease has not only come as a major blow to the polio eradication drive but has also indicated how vulnerable vaccinators’ lives are to hostility and violence in the city.

“We endanger our lives and bear with insulting remarks the whole day for a paltry sum of Rs250,” grieved Gulnaz, who lost her young niece and sister-in-law, while talking to Dawn at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre mortuary on Tuesday.

Eighteen-year-old Madiha and Fehmida, 40, were shot dead while they were coming out of a home after administering polio drops to children in Gulshan-i-Buner of Landhi’s union council 1.

Similar incidents were reported in Baldia and Orangi.

The victim’s family complained that area people had been warning them that they must not visit the locality for vaccination, as it was a ‘no-go area’.

“When I came out of a house after administering polio drops, I saw a man holding a gun. I ran for cover, but I didn’t know that someone had killed my brave daughter,” said Madiha’s mother, Rukhsana, with her eyes filled with tears.

Madiha, the eldest among six siblings, didn’t even have a breakfast as she was in a hurry to join her team of vaccinators on Tuesday morning, she said.

“Madiha said she would be back by 3pm,” she said.

The JPMC mortuary was grim and heavy with her cries. “Please bring my daughter back.”

Poverty had forced both mother and daughter to eke out a living by working as polio vaccinators. The family’s financial woes, however, had compounded in recent months when Rukhsana’s husband had to undergo an operation. “That has restricted his movement and he can’t stand at a place for long. Since my 16-year-old son is unemployed and still learning vocational skills, Madiha had been supporting the family like a son,” she lamented.

Madiha didn’t get an opportunity to study on account of financial troubles and was enrolled for a religious course. She left that course, too, before started working as a polio vaccinator.

“They live in a rented house and, being aware of their financial problems, I offered her to join me in the polio campaign a few months ago when I got the chance to work as a team leader,” Gulnaz explained.

Vaccinators get Rs250 a day for providing polio drops to children in 180 houses, she said. “Even that amount is not paid on time. The government hasn’t paid us a single penny over the past two months,” she said.

“Also, there is no security and the teams largely comprising women have to tolerate misbehaviour,” she added.

The victim’s family also complained that the area people had been warning them that they must not come to the locality.

“Men used to hurl abuses at us saying that we are engaged in a drive aimed at spreading infertility.

“We informed our superiors about these threats but they told us to ignore the intimidation,” said a polio worker who was also engaged in the polio vaccination in the same locality.

Facing violent behaviour frequently, members of a polio team also once made an effort to talk directly to those who were opposing the polio campaign.

“We met the women of that family and told them politely that it’s our job. We don’t force you to get your children vaccinated against polio. But please don’t use foul language against any team member,” she explained.

Fehmida, the other victim, was a mother of seven children — five daughters and a son — and had been working as a polio vaccinator for the past seven months.

Her husband, Syed Riaz Shah Shirazi, works as a daily-wage earner.

“Two of our daughters are married while the son is too young. Seeing other members of the family working as a polio vaccinator, she also joined them so that she could supplement family’s income,” he said.

‘Brutality unprecedented’

When contacted, Dr Sher Rahman, medical supervisor in Landhi UC-1, told Dawn that the polio campaign had been running for two decades and the city had never witnessed such a brutal incident before.

Dr Rahman replied in the negative when asked about the threats and misbehaviour meted out to the polio workers. “No, we have never received such a complaint else we would have provided security to the team.”

“But I would say that the police didn’t provide us with the kind of support they had given last year when a police patrol visited us on a daily basis and asked if any help was required,” he said.

The area where the incident took place was largely inhabited by people from the tribal areas, according to Dr Rahman who has been working in the locality since October 2011.

“But we never had any problem.” Dr Rahman said: “The people are nice and cooperative. Even today, they came for help in the incident.”

Condemning the incident, Lady Health Workers Association President Naseem Munir said that vaccinators wouldn’t participate in the campaign unless the government provided them with security.

She said: “It’s tragic that people who are trying to secure the nation’s future are being targeted with bullets. We demand that the government arrest the culprits and provide us with security.”