One really unsung hero, I feel, is the lady health worker, starting from that delightful name—lady health worker, like ‘lady wife’, is one of those unexpected manoeuvres of the English language that make me rather happy. Where are the lord health workers, or are there men health workers? Don’t men need to be healthy? I digress, though. The lady health worker is the Avon lady of the medical world. She goes door to door in smaller towns and villages, places where women have limited mobility outside the home and even more restricted access to healthcare. In order to be treated one must first leave the house, and if you’re in purdah and chaar-deewari, or just can’t leave the house alone, then even a simple trip to the corner store is problematic. Factor into account all the reasons a woman may need to see a doctor, and the importance of the lady health worker multiplies manifold.

We all know an educated woman makes an educated mother, and the choices that they make for their households and their family change with their awareness of things like hygiene and the importance of schooling. Lady health workers make it possible for women to gain this education—how else would an unlettered woman living in a mud house know that washing one’s hands with soap instead of just water is essential to kill germs, or that infants shouldn’t be given buffalo milk until after they are a year old? By coming to them, sitting in their homes, lady health workers make the women they work with feel comfortable and secure enough to ask their questions and receptive to new knowledge they may be resistant to implement.

One such aspect of personal health is contraception. One of the best things Benazir Bhutto’s government ever did was the Green Key (harri chaabi) Campaign. And again, the role of the lady health worker was vital to it. men and women—and not just poor village people, but urban living ones too and people from all walks of life—were, for the first time, exposed to tactful advertisements about ‘bachay kum hi achay’ and information about the various kinds of contraception available was freely disseminated, along with said contraception itself. Given that Pakistan presently has one of the highest birth rates in the world, the harri chaabi years were probably the best ones in terms of our population growth. And the lady health worker was pivotal to it.

As with our polio workers, the NGO wallahs who tramp the gullies and the koochay working with communities and many other people who do what is so sneeringly called ‘social work’, this kind of unglamorous, underpaid and underappreciated work is possibly the most important to the social and physical well-being of people who desperately need help the most. Not people like you and me, who can afford decent healthcare, know how to read medicine labels and have access to clean drinking water and typhoid vaccination for our children. But the people in the katchi abadis, in the gullies of the inner city, in the little hamlets outside the big cities. The women, and the children they are raising.

The women always have it the worst—first you hit puberty and one’s menarche. Then there is marriage and it’s associated troubles, and then there is pregnancy, in itself a huge process, and then childbirth, that still unpredictable, dangerous process, in spite of all the progress modern medicine has made. Although, truth be told, modern medicine may be able to tractor beam babies out of one’s belly but it doesn’t matter a jot to the woman delivering her fourth baby at home with a midwife, without any equipment, pain relief or antibiotics of any kind. No wonder nurses in hospitals here can be dismissive of one’s pain—it’s pretty easy, in comparison, to deliver a baby in a sterile hospital amidst trained professionals and a plethora of machinery and medication at you and your baby’s disposal should either of you need it. And yet, the lady health worker remains an unsung, underfunded operation. She’s only saving women’s lives, really, and helping their children not to die from diahorrea by telling them about how to mix up ORS and how to administer it to the baby. She’s explaining how contraception works, how it gives women rights back to their body—to be able to decide when and how many children to have is the most wonderful empowerment .

The lady health worker is a national treasure in a country where the proverbial mountain has to be brought to one, because one cannot possibly make it to the mountain oneself.
Healthcare is still one of the biggest and most important issues in our third-world country. It breaks my heart that so much money is perpetually funneled into roadworks when people don’t have clean water to drink and children die from diseases that are so ordinary and so avoidable that it should be criminal that measures aren’t taken to protect them. They are the future just as much your children and mine are, only their future is so different and there is nobody but a handful of hardworking, well-intentioned people to care (this is also why everyone needs to stop sneering at the NGO people too—they’re doing the hands-on dirty work you’re too fancy and opinionated to get down to even imagine doing). So here’s to you, lady health workers, live long and prosper, and thank you.