Shedding light on the plight of lady health workers (LHWs), the Workers Education & Research Organisation (Wero) on Friday presented a report on their sexual harassment.
Presenting the report at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) office, Wero’s Moneeza Inam said there are over 125,000 LHWs across the country, with 22,576 of them belonging to Sindh.
Moneeza said the LHW programme of door-to-door service was initiated in 1997, while the organised struggle for the rights of the workers came about in 2009 under the All Pakistan Lady Health Workers.
“The LHW programme has had a positive impact, as maternal and child mortality rates have decreased in the areas covered by the workers. It has also helped overcome gendered division of public and private spaces, as they were formerly looked down on because their work demands unrestricted mobility of women.”
Listing some of the key challenges faced by the LHWs, she said that besides uncertain job conditions, irregular salaries and long working hours, the workers are also forced to cover areas that are dangerous.
“Sometimes the LHWs, whose responsibility is to advise on family planning and basic health care, are also asked to administer polio drops in a state-run campaign or a WHO programme. Sometimes they are also asked to attend political jalsas [gatherings] to show the number of women attending.”
Moneeza said that almost all LHWs face disapproval of their families, but their salaries are their saving grace, adding that their families often suspect them of having extramarital affairs because at times they have to spend long hours on duty.
“Many workers are molested and harassed by senior officials or the men they encounter, but on complaining they are sent to remote areas as punishment. Also, when these women go to people’s homes to educate them about family planning, they are asked to speak to the husband and the mother-in-law because there is hardly any bodily autonomy for women.”
She lamented that many times men push them out of their homes or ask lewd questions about using protection, which makes them uncomfortable in their presence. “Some also reach the workers’ houses seeking pills or advice on other methods, which creates problems for the LHWs at their homes.”
Moneeza said that many times the LHWs are also beaten up in their homes for not handing all of their salaries to their husbands, and sometimes the men hit them for travelling with their male colleagues, who pick and drop them.
She added that despite the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act being in place, the LHWs continue to remain unaware of it as well as their rights.
It was recommended that apart from allocating a budget for these health workers, the government must also raise awareness about family planning as well as the importance of the role of LHWs who have also been targeted in the past during anti-polio drives.
Sindh Commission on the Status of Women Chairperson Nuzhat Shireen said that while the results of the report are demoralising, it is also discouraging to see that the LHWs do not know about the existence of the commission. “We are always willing to work with groups of women, and now, whenever a law is to be made, the consent of the commission will be taken before it’s tabled before the cabinet.”
She stressed that the commission is always ready to facilitate in whichever way possible, through trainings or by providing necessary aid, which can also help garner funds to support these women, who can be empowered to fight their own cases.
“If there are any complaints against any person, I am present and willing to become the face of those women who want to raise their voice. If a police official isn’t registering a complaint, I will go with you, but all I ask of you is to file a complaint with the commission and we will be there for you.”
Back in March, the Sindh government had approved a major revision to the curriculum for lady health supervisors (LHSs) in a move aimed at improving the quality of door-to-door preventive health services delivered by LHWs across the province.
The new curriculum, which incorporated the latest treatment guidelines for pneumonia and diarrhoea, two preventable diseases that caused over 670,000 deaths in the country in 2015, was unveiled during a meeting of provincial stakeholders and researchers involved in the Nigraan Plus study at the Aga Khan University (AKU).
It included directives on how LHSs can effectively support and supervise the work of LHWs, thereby empowering them to apply the latest knowledge and clinical skills to manage pneumonia and diarrhoea at early stages, when care is the most effective.
Sindh Lady Health Workers Programme Director Dr Ghulam Hussain Sheikh had said the revised LHS curriculum would be used for training purposes, and it was envisaged that it would ultimately help in better management of childhood diarrhoea and pneumonia.
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