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Brave women

It takes real courage for a woman to be a teacher or a lady health worker or a polio vaccinator in Pakistan these days. The women who have chosen these professions have become the frontline troops in the endless battle against extremism and are taking casualties in increasing numbers. The last month has been particularly grim for these female fighters who never use guns to wage their battles. First, there were the coordinated killings of nine polio vaccinators across the country and threats made to countless others.

The polio vaccination campaign was suspended by the World Health Organisation; and health workers, most of whom are poorly paid women working at the grassroots, are rightly protesting at the lack of security they are provided. Then on Tuesday came another atrocity in which women were the primary targets. Six women and a male medical technician working for a local NGO close to Swabi were killed as they left the centre where they worked mostly as teachers. Their driver was gravely injured and the four-year-old son of one of the women miraculously survived. As always, the attackers escaped on motorbikes and no early arrest is expected.

These women had done no more than try to impart the rudiments of education and provide basic health care to a poor and remote population. They had been doing so for at least the last two years and the organisation they worked for reports that it had received no threats prior to the murders. No organisation has as yet claimed responsibility for the atrocity. What is so tragic, apart from the loss of innocent lives, is the deafening silence from senior political and religious figures in the country.

There have been no calls for protest and – apart from small gatherings of concerned protestors outside assorted press clubs across the country – nobody is likely to raise a voice in protest at the horrific death of these women. There were few protests in the case of the polio vaccinators as well – nobody has been charged with their murders nor are any significant arrests expected. As we move into 2013 it is apparent that large areas of Pakistan are, to all intents and purposes, ungoverned space. We should laud the strength and raw courage of these women who provide much of our health and education services, thereby supporting a state that does so little to support them. Instead they are little more than soft targets in a fight the state is unwilling or unable to engage in with all its considerable might.

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