Nasima Bibi was one of the 16 female health workers murdered in co-ordinated attacks across Pakistan in December and January. And on 8 February nine, as yet unnamed, female health workers in northern Nigeria were killed in same manner – by gunmen on motorcycles. These murdered women, some of whom were still just teenagers, played a critical role in these UN-sponsored polio vaccination drives.
In conservative societies where ordinary women often lack freedom of mobility it is female health workers that play a desperately needed role in bridging the gap between the private space of the home and the public arena of basic service provision. These were not simply attacks on the idea of vaccinations. They were attacks on the idea of women in public spaces.
Young women are recruited to the frontline of service provision in order to bring these services closer to ordinary women, children and the poor. This is the case not only in Pakistan and northern Nigeria; evidence shows that women in the frontline of service delivery (pdf) in conservative contexts, whether as polling agents, police officers, registration officials, judges, court clerks, teachers, medical attendants, or agricultural extension agents, deliver better quality services to both men and women, improve women’s access to services and act as important role models for women’s public engagement and the feminisation of public spaces. These women are influential role models representing brighter futures for the women and children that they interact with.
For example, Bangladesh has trained tens of thousands of female health workers who promote family planning, safe motherhood, and proper care of newborns. This has helped the country achieve a two-thirds reduction in deaths among children younger than 5 years of age since 1990 and a reduction in maternal mortality (pdf). There is also a clear correlation between the number of women police officers and reporting of sexual violence. Evidence shows that women police officers are better able to gain the trust of the communities they patrol, which is critical to effective preventative policing, and also that an increase in numbers of women in police stations co-relates with an increase in reporting of sexual violence not just by women but by men and boys too.
The extremist forces in Pakistan and northern Nigeria that are targeting women health workers are sending an unambiguous message that women are not welcome in public spaces and that they fear the social change that comes with women’s mobility, empowerment and access to stable public sector employment. We cannot advocate women to take on public roles in insecure employment conditions, and then leave them to be gunned down on the street.
The state must find the killers of these young women and bring them to justice. Doing so would send a powerful message to not only extremists but all of society that women have a role to play in the public life of the country. Stop denying women freedom of mobility in the name of safety. Take more vigorous measures to provide them with secure working environments and stop women’s bodies being used as the main axis of struggle between non-state and state forces. To remove young women workers from public spaces is to undermine not only equitable public service delivery, but also the broader ambitions shared by both Pakistani and Nigerian men and women of democratising their society and building inclusive communities in which all can achieve their potential.
There are several concrete ways that governments and humanitarian organisations can increase the number of women service providers as well as promote their safety. Liberia’s national police force has adopted specific recruitment, retention and promotion policies to attract and increase the number of women serving.
The limited access that women in sub-Saharan Africa have to secondary education can also be a significant obstacle to qualifying as public service providers. In Liberia the requirement of a high school diploma severely restricts the potential pool of candidates. In response the government of the Netherlands funded an initiative to pay the secondary school costs for 150 women applicants who then committed upon completion to serve five years in the Liberian national police. In 2005 only 2% of police officers in Liberia were women compared to 17% in 2011.
Governments and humanitarian organisations can organise special training opportunities for women service providers – Rwanda’s ministry of agriculture has held special farm field schools to specifically train more than 200 women agricultural extension agents and Morocco has recruited and deployed over 100 female judicial social assistants to improve vulnerable women’s access to family court services. In Egypt, the ministry of interior organised 200 young women as registration officers in rural areas to increase the number of rural women with ID cards. In Tajikistan UN Women organised grassroots aid agencies to serve as registration officers and help vulnerable families to access birth certificates and other vital documentation.
In addition to a strong commitment to the deployment of more women, improving human resource practices, and improving access to education for women, governments must also provide stronger security assurances to women service providers and UN missions must ensure their protection of civilians includes women humanitarian service providers. For example, during the most recent elections in Afghanistan and Kenya special security assessments and responses were instituted for women polling officers. Unfortunately, the low number of arrests, prosecutions and convictions for attacks on women service providers in violent or conservative contexts gives little confidence in the justice system’s ability to respond.
The families of the murdered women mourn their brave daughters and sisters of Pakistan and Nigeria, young women who were committed to changing their countries for the better. The governments of these states must respond to these murders by taking stronger measures to increase the protection of both men and women frontline health service providers. Only then there will be hope that they will end the next year with more children protected through vaccinations and fewer female health workers assassinated in the streets and in front of clinics.