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Waiting for Malala to grow up

By: Abbas Nasir

WHEN the state and the political elite of the country cannot be on the same page even on how best to deal with an existential threat to it, is there a point in debating anything else?

The Taliban and their various franchised terror groups keep attacking at will, killing innocent, unarmed men, women and children. And we cannot respond because there isn’t a ‘consensus’ on how to.

The state of Pakistan continues to resemble a crumbling edifice. Today, it is an assault on an airbase, tomorrow on school-going girls. Then, a girls’ school is blown up, a bus is stopped, with Shia passengers identified, pulled off and executed.

Condemnation follows. Both from you and I. And from those whose responsibility it is to safeguard the life and limb of every citizen. But if we cast our eye over the past so many years we see very little beyond words.

When it appeared the army may have been prepared to somewhat distance itself from its obsessive belief that the jihadi ideology coupled with nuclear weapons and conventional forces offered the most robust defence of the country, the civilian political elite balked at the prospect of a clean-up.

To some action against militancy was an ideological issue so they opposed it, others let anti-Americanism dominate their response while some felt that any such an exercise would jeopardise or at least delay the next general election due in the coming months.

Swat’s Malala Yousufzai was shot and wounded in October. The attempt on the life of a teenager for the crime of wanting to go to school was justified by the Taliban ‘because she represented and promoted western culture/values’. The outrage was spontaneous, widespread but to no avail.

As November was drawing to a close, 12-year old Mehzar Zehra was gravely wounded in an armed attack when she was being driven to school by her father in Karachi. The ostensible reason for this attack was that they were Shias.

And December saw multiple attacks on women in Karachi and Khyber Pakthunkhwa in which a number of them were killed.

What did Naseem Akhtar, Kaneez Fatima, Madeeha, Fehmida and others have in common? They were poorly paid (on a daily wage of Rs250) health workers contracted to visit dozens of homes a day to make sure children received their polio vaccine drops. Given the security environment generally and specific threats to polio workers their work was marked by valour.

Experts say the exercise involves in excess of 80,000 workers with some 33 million children to be vaccinated. Now the fate of the programme is in limbo. Who’d blame the health workers if not a single one ever agreed to step out of their home for the vaccination programme?

Let me declare a personal interest here. I contracted polio when I wasn’t even three. I can walk on my own but have restricted mobility. In the early 1960s the knowledge of the virus and its symptoms was so sketchy that I was ill for a number of weeks before a diagnosis was made.

I was fortunate in having devoted, doting parents (and lovely siblings) who spared neither effort nor whatever little material resources they had to ensure my upbringing in an environment free of complexes, sent me to good schools and supported me hugely in early life.

The best orthosis was always fitted no matter how they had to cut corners elsewhere to be able to pay for it; the best physiotherapy was made available. The list is endless and I could go on about how blessed I was after my initial misfortune.

But that isn’t the point. Even with a middle-class family, its values, resources and an indescribable amount of love behind me, life wasn’t (and isn’t) easy. When you are growing up and all the children around you can run while all you do is watch, imagine the frustration every day.

Although I have always believed I am more ‘normal’ than many able-bodied people, it is also a fact that when you go through most physical activity, and I am not talking competitive sport here, at about a sixth or a tenth of the pace of the rest of the world, you are always playing catch up.

Boy it gets exhausting. Sometimes you just want to stop. That’s me. Imagine the life of a polio victim in a poverty-stricken environment. With physical disability would inevitably follow challenges in earning a livelihood through manual labour. A begging bowl and reliance on others the next step.

Today such dilemmas are easily avoidable but we have created a society where the simplest of issues become the most complicated, with the result that we don’t shy away from putting even our children at risk.

The reader, one is certain, must get fed up when all columnists do is write laments, pen elegies and practically little else. I have often wondered if among the handful of readers who still read the op-ed pages of a newspaper there is growing irritation at the subject matter of columns such as these.

One so wishes to focus on the positive, but also has to reflect reality which keeps getting direr all the time. One can only ignore that at the risk of appearing delusional. Let me sound positive for a change.

A befitting response to the attackers would be for the president, the governors, the prime minister, the chief ministers along with their cabinet members, opposition politicians and the military leaders to go to each attack site and personally administer drops to the children there.

Now wouldn’t that be an uplifting, positive sight? But I suspect it can only be a reality when 15-year-old Malala and others like her grow up and assume leadership roles in Pakistan for that sort of courage and conviction is nowhere in evidence right now.

Dawn“> Dawn“>