It takes courage and determination to go into a Pakhtun-dominated area, where many oppose the concept of anti-polio drops on religious grounds, and convince parents to administer vaccination drops to their children. Naseem Akhtar possessed both the qualities and remained unfazed during her six years of service to prevent children from living life with a disability – until Tuesday when a targeted attack cut her life short.
The 50-year-old lady health worker was shot five times, once in the head, in Toori Bangash – an area where she thought being a pathan would help her in carrying out the task.
Mother of four daughters and two sons, Akhtar was not the only one caught in a shooting rampage – three other polio workers were shot dead in separate attacks on the second day of the polio campaign, one female worker was killed in Peshawar. Police suspect the gunmen were from the Taliban, who along with other militants ordered a ban on polio vaccinations in June.
At Akhtar’s residence in Orangi, women mourners recited prayers on their beads while others broke down in tears – all finding it hard to pry their eyes away from her blood-soaked documents and files.
Amongst the mourners was Farzana, who was in the same area as her sister, but was spared. “I was going towards the houses near Hilltop and my sister was down below. I do not know when they killed my sister,” said the frail woman. “It was around noon when four young men suddenly came up to me and told me to go straight home without looking back. They told me they’d kill me if I did not listen to them.”
Holding back their tears, Akhtar’s daughters said that no one dared to go into the area because of the security situation. “It was because of our ethnicity that my mother was made in charge of the polio team in Toori Bangasht,” said Kulsoom.
Riaz Shah, husband of another other worker who was killed in the attacks, also feels that it was the commitment to eradicate polio despite the minimal pay which made his wife, Fehmida, step out of the house.
“I told my wife to stop working as the situation in the city was getting worse. But she did not listen.”
Fehmida and her niece Madiha were both killed in Landhi’s Gulshan-e-Buner after they came out of a house to administer polio drops.
Shah, a taxi driver, wants the door-to-door campaign to end so that other women can be saved. The fourth victim, 35-year-old Kaneez Fatima, mother of eight children, was taken to Bahawalpur to be buried in her hometown.
Families of the victims blamed government officials for keeping them in the dark about the risks in certain areas.
“In the last polio campaign, two months ago, residents of Toori Bangash had warned officials that if lady health officers came to the area, they would be killed. But the officials did not disclose this and played with our loved ones’ lives,” alleged Akhtar’s son Gul Muhammad.
Head of the Lady Health Workers Association, Naseem Muneer, also said that the government did not inform them about the areas where they were at risk.
“During our last campaign, we had told them that our women were being harassed in certain areas but no one paid heed. If they knew of the dangers, why didn’t they give us protection?” DIG West Shahid Hayat said that police was not informed about the areas the teams were going to visit.
Government and WHO officials, however, denied receiving threats from any area.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2012.