October 20th, 2020
By Ayesha Mir
After an arduous week of sustained protests near D-Chowk, the Lady Health Workers (LHWs) have finally ended the sit-in after successful negotiations with the federal government on Monday night.
In a meeting held with State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Ali Muhammad Khan, both parties agreed to the formation of a committee with representation from each province to address the issues brought forth by the LHWs. The federal government agreed to instruct inspector generals of each province to ensure the safety of all health workers.
In addition, matters regarding pensions and bonuses will be handled by the Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and the Prime Minister’s health committee. Government officials have agreed to deliver on their promises within a time frame of three months.
Prior to the brokering the deal, the LHWs had gone to no small lengths to secure their demands. Geared with compact travel bags, purses, empty plastic bottles and a rug to mark their territory, and lacking any arrangements for food and access to sanitation facilities, they spent the last few days under the open sky, braving the chill of October nights sans sweaters or blankets.
They were vying to stay put in Islamabad for as long as it took until the government met all their demands.
The LHWs claim that the government had tried to scare them away by switching off the street lights at night and ordering nearby petrol pump workers to bar them using their toilets, but nothing dissuaded them.
“We are here to stay; we have burned our ships. God will protect us,” they said.
Indeed, in their desperation, the LHWs set off on a determined march toward the parliament house on the sixth day of protest, pushing through the various barriers, containers and barbed wire placed by the administration to thwart their stride. An eventual clash with the police, who had deployed female personnel to contain the protest, resulted in at least one lady health worker sustaining injuries.
The sit-in began on October 14, when thousands of government employees, pensioners, and members of different unions staged a protest against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the government’s anti-worker policies in Islamabad’s red-zone. They demanded that the salaries of government employees should be increased in proportion to the price-hike, as the government had failed to raise salaries and pensions for government employees in the current fiscal budget presented in June 2020.
Whereas the All Pakistan Clerks Association workers called off their protest after successful negotiations with the government, the lady health workers continued on.
They had put forth a list of ten demands, which includes restoration of the National Programme of Family Planning to its original plan, equal bonuses for all employees (including drivers), a unified pay structure, job security, and ample protection when rendering their services during health campaigns, such as the polio immunization drive.
“Under the family planning programme, we are unjustly assigned the extra burden of doing five deliveries every day, and if we don’t meet that target they serve us a show-cause notice. We are not given any risk allowance, no conveyance allowance,” said Rukhsana Anwar, the President of National Programme of Health Employees Federation while addressing the crowd during the protests. “We do all the ground-work for all the health campaigns, whether it’s polio, dengue, the coronavirus… but the higher-ups sitting in their air-conditioned rooms take all the credit and reap the rewards.”
According to Anwar, it is unfair that the LHWs in Sindh earn Rs. 35,000 with an extra allowance of Rs. 17,000, whereas the salary for LHWs in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a mere Rs. 20,000. Not only is this amount an inadequate compensation for their nature of work, but after the recent price hikes, it is insufficient to meet daily expenses.
She also demanded that a service structure should be put together for all employees, as this is the only way they can receive timely promotions and allowances. “Right now, we had to fight to become permanent employees in 2012, but none of the governments have owned up to us. There are many LHWs and other workers who still have no IDs or service books.”
In addition, they demand that all LHWs and lady health representatives be regularised, retired employees be given pensions, the union be restored, and previously dismissed workers be reinstated immediately.
“The previous services of all cadres of the National Programme should be counted and their scales should be upgraded. The Supreme Court has given directions to count the services of all permanent employees, but this has not happened. Many of our colleagues who have served up to 26 years are terminated instead of being given their due pensions,” added Anwar.
After several unsuccessful rounds of negotiations, Dr. Faisal Sultan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, said that this issue came under the jurisdiction of provincial governments and should not have been brought to Islamabad. He had said he had tried to arrange a dialogue between the LHWs and the Punjab Health Minister, Dr. Yasmin Rashid, but was told that the minister had “let down the protestors” who now seek justice from the Prime Minister.
According to Rukhsana Anwar, the LHWs met with the Punjab Health Secretary Ajmal Bhatti on Sunday, October 18, who assured them that all their demands would be met, but no notification had been issued in regards to that meet by the seventh day.
She said, “I have concluded that the reason behind the failure of our negotiations is Dr. Yasmin Rashid. She is so dear to this government that they are letting this issue derail because of her, even though the amount of damage she has already caused is not hidden. We have nothing to do with politics, we have our own issues. But she has established the culture of a dictatorship in Punjab. She deems us her enemy because we unveiled the corruption of her fellows Dr. Mukhtar and Dr. Akhtar Rashid of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), who were earning millions through a three-year contract even after retirement.”
Plight of LHWs
The Lady Health Worker Programme was established in 1993 to provide primary healthcare to women who are confined to their homes, and to execute immunisation campaigns such as the polio-eradication drive. About 125,000 women are employed as part of the Lady Health Worker Programme.
However, in a society as conservative and patriarchal as Pakistan, each day poses a new threat. On one hand, they are vilified for carrying out polio campaigns by those who deem it un-Islamic and part of a ‘Western agenda’. On the other, their own families often resent them for taking up work that demands them to be out in the public at odd hours.
“Sometimes we are required to do a delivery at 2AM and if we say “no”, we get a show-cause notice. On top of this, there is no arrangement for our security and harassment is part of our daily routine now. What is the point of enduring all this and not even earn a decent salary? Aren’t we human beings? Were we born just to serve this country as slaves?” cried out a protestor who wished to remain anonymous.
Others have had to pay an unimaginably high price for taking up the rigorous job
“I have always been so busy trying to save other children’s lives, that I forgot to give time and attention to my own daughter… she passed away and I was left helpless,” another woman whimpered as she wiped away her tears.
Apart from the general price hikes and increasing financial difficulties, many of them feel betrayed by Imran Khan’s government
“The last time we protested, members of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) supported us but now that they are in government, they are all out of sympathy. At that time, they needed us and our votes, but now what? They shouldn’t forget that we are the same women who came to attend their marches and dharnas, the least they can do is give us our rights. Would any leader of a ‘Riyasat-e-Madinah’ leave the women of his country out in the open like this?”
For all their relentless public service, one of the biggest disappointments for LHWs is the display of extreme hostility from locals, especially while they are out on polio drives. Just last month, a 25-year-old LHW, Nasreen Gul, was shot dead in the Mirali sub-division of North Waziristan.
“So many of our colleagues have lost their lives in the line of duty, yet we haven’t received the recognition we deserve. A few months ago, one worker from Azad Jammu and Kashmir was shot dead during a polio drive and her co-worker went into a coma after experiencing a heart attack on the spot. Now there is no one to answer to their families or facilitate them in any way. Even now, many people don’t open their doors for us and taunt us for not having anything better to do in life…” they explained.