Following the January 15 news report of two lady health workers (LHWs) who were subjected to gang rape in Bheelwal village in Punjab’s Gujrat district, a recent study claims that cases of sexual harassment of LHWs are on the rise in the country.
Karachi-based Workers Education & Research Organisation (WERO), in collaboration with the Public Services International, conducted a survey on sexual harassment of LHWs at workplace and in the field.
The National Programme for Family Planning & Primary Health Care was started in 1994, and almost 10,000 LHWs were inducted into the programme initially and 20,000 more after its success. At present around 125,000 LHWs are serving communities across the country and 22,576 in Sindh alone.
The programme employed a large number of female workers to serve women and children. It also helped overcome the gender division in public and private space that was a major obstacle in women’s access to basic services, including education and employment opportunities.
WERO Executive Director Mir Zulfiqar Ali said the programme was now a major employer of women in the non-agricultural formal sector in rural areas.
The study listed regular attacks and molestation among the key challenges faced by LHWs. The survey found that female workers also had issues with the management, which was not supportive, abused its power and pressured the LHWs to work in dangerous areas, often as punishment.
The management’s constant threats of terminating the health workers was the main challenge, claimed the study. Their supervisors force many of them to keep quiet and threaten them with dismissal, making them vulnerable for further harassment, the survey found.
Discussing the various forms of harassment, the study showed that certain segments of society look at the LHWs in a suspicious manner. “The LHWs have to interact with men to discuss family planning issues and contraceptives, which is against the norms and decorum of a conservative society,” Ali explained.
“Men often ask the LHWs embarrassing questions, and in many cases forbid them from coming to their homes and meeting their family for vaccinations.”
In certain communities, especially the upper class or landowners, LHWs are not allowed to enter their houses, said the study. Ali lamented that the health workers’ husbands usually beat them up when they are late in returning home.