During a recent visit to Layyah, I came across a road blockade which was not the usual barriers in reaction to security concerns in the bigger cities of Pakistan. In a town of nearly 500000 people, the main road in front of the District Headquarters hospital of Layyah was blocked by angry nursing students on September 17th and their banners demanded ‘removal of incompetent principal and Executive District Officer (Health)’ and ‘protection for nurses.’
In a region where ‘pardah’ is strictly observed by women, so much that these student sometimes refuse to attend male patients, the seven hour protest under the leadership of MPA Punjab Baber Khitraan of PPP was implausible to both the hospital administration and the people of Layyah. The students said they were on strike because they faced a shortage of teaching staff and the Principal of the Nursing School forced them to learn about her religious beliefs.
The District Coordination Officer Layyah Javed Iqbal had to intervene on the same day and received an unkind treatment by angry protesters, but still agreed to all their demands. However, the next day, the students further amazed the administration of Layyah city and DHQ when they decided to go for another demonstration, only this time demanding removal of DCO Layyah! They also told members of press the next day that they were now protesting for not being allowed to keep a mobile phone in their possession. The students refused to go back to the wards or home and decided to sleep in the press club instead. The event led to yet another demonstration in the city where people of Layyah, including the business community and doctors showed their solidarity with DCO, who according to them performed his duties well in the time of the flood disaster.
What are the nurses doing in press club when the DCO agreed to accept all their demands? Why are they still not going back to the wards after the Nursing School Principal has been removed from her post? Was this really an issue of being from a certain religion? What are the factors that are still keeping them in the press club when their families have shown complete disagreement with their viewpoint? The issue seemed to have gotten a lot more complicated then it started out to be while some questions still remain unanswered.
For the full timeline of the events, continue reading…
According to the details received from the DHQ hospital and School of Nursing Layyah from staff members who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, the course of action was as follows:
The Layyah student nurses issue started with three major events: A personal clash sparked between Nursing School Pricipal Ms.Victoria Anita and former Medical Superintendent DHQ Ghulam Mustafa Gillani when she refused to sign the licenses of three students who had failed in their community midwifery exam.
Three of the students were employed at the private clinic of Dr.Mohammed Yahya (ex-Surgeon) of DHQ Layyah. The principal started receiving threats from unknown people on the telephone of facing fearful consequences for showing an inflexible attitude.
Secondly, the school got complaints from the medical officers and nursing supervisors in the Holy month of Ramadan that the nursing students did not come back to report to their supervisors in the hospital wards after they went for a break for ‘aftari’ and ‘sehri’ to the hostel, due to which the patients suffered. Also due to the ‘pardah’ tradition in the Layyah region, some students refused to attend male patients. There is no male nurse in the Layyah District hospital. Thirdly, students are not allowed to have mobile phones in their possession in the nursing hostel. When asked to hand over their mobiles, they refused to do so.
In reaction to these incidences, on 2nd of September, a few girls went outside the hostel gate for their routine duty according to the roster and instead gave a call to media personnel who were friends or relatives of the students. Three journalists allegedly broke into the Nursing school after abusing the staff at the gate and went directly to speak to the students after which the nursing students went on strike outside the school with the support from a crowd that was arranged by the reporters and MS Gillani. The matter was reported to the Executive District Officer (Health) who immediately came to the school.
The print media reported that the principal, who belongs to the Christian faith, preached her religious beliefs to the Muslim students in the hostel and she was also accused of attacking their ‘pardah’ tradition which is very strong in the district. The EDO (Health) came for an inquiry and found the accusations baseless.
Ms Gillani started to incite the students to stop cooperating with the school administration. On 16th September they went on strike again demanding the removal of the ‘incompetent’ principal to which the EDO Health took notice and came to the nursing school for negotiations with the students. The nursing students’ leaders refused to speak to him or take part in talks or negotiations and insisted on the removal of the principal. They said they were not afraid of being struck out of the school even though the regulations state that they cannot take part in any protest or strike.
The EDO (health) gave instructions to take strict disciplinary action and expel the students who refused to comply with the rules and also to relieve the third year students early for their exams which are due in October. He ordered the closure of school until further notice. 38 students left the same day for their homes while 22 remained in the hostel while some of them refused to go back home.
There were 16 students who decided not to go with their families, but to continue the protest. Next morning, parents of a few students and the three press reporters who were allegedly leading the whole campaign, were standing outside with banners and placards ready for a protest and strike. The protest was led by MPA Punjab Baber Khitraan of the PPP who also provided protestors with entertainment the whole day while the students blocked the road leading to the DHQ.
District Coordination Officer (DCO) Layyah Javed Iqbal arrived at the protest scene to speak to the nurses but the male supporters in the crowd (who were mainly supporters of MPA Khitraan and a few relatives of nursing students) refused to talk and incited the students to throw shoes at the Officer’s car, which led to an argument between him and MPA Khitraan. The DCO promised the nurses to terminate the orders of the principal and the withdrawal of all orders by the EDO. The protest lasted for seven hours and the parents now wanted the nurses to go back home, but the nurses refused.
The students, who have been sleeping in the press club since the beginning of the protest, still refuse to speak to any elected or government representative and they do not speak to any other reporters than the three correspondents in question. One provincial minister and two members of the Provincial Assembly including a woman representative have visited the students so far in the press club for negotiations, but they refuse to speak to anyone other than Baber Khitraan.
District Health Officer Dr. Naeem Khalid, Dr. Gulzar Siratey, Dr.Zeeshan Mirza, and Dr. Rasheed Bhatti spoke to a rally on the 20th September condemning the actions of the 16 girls who were still on strike and refused to go back to wards and hostel even after the DCO agreed to their conditions and demands. They said they support DCO Layyah and EDO (Health) and will call for a nation wide strike if the issue is not resolved soon.