A memorial to Benazir

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE government has, after much thought I presume, decided to erect a monument in Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi, to honour the memory of the first woman prime minister of Pakistan and the late chairperson of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated two years ago.

This move was long overdue as Ms Bhutto merits a tribute irrespective of the political controversy surrounding her.

But can only a brick and mortar monument commemorate Ms Bhutto`s achievements? I think not. First of all the lavish spending would invite a lot of flak and rightly so. Being so fond of erecting concrete structures as memorials to the dead, we tend to forget that such pretentiousness reeks of contempt for the impoverished masses without whose adulation the dead leaders in a democracy would not have achieved the status they did.

Hence it is time we started the tradition of honouring our dead by creating living institutions in their memory. The brick and mortar stuff tends to be popular with the powers-that-be for the wrong reasons and should be shunned.

Seen from this perspective, isn`t one billion rupees from the treasury a rather huge amount to throw on a concrete structure? Where such memorials are erected they are kept simple and elegant following the `small is beautiful` principle. Ostentation is scrupulously avoided. Look at the graves of the Unknown Soldier in numerous countries all over the world. The focus is on the eternal flame that is kept burning round the clock and is more symbolic of the permanence of the memory it honours than the solidity of the steel and cement that go into its making.

Olof Palme`s grave in Stockholm touches a poignant chord in the visitor because of its elegant simplicity. Paved with brown tiles it has an uncut block of stone next to a sleek tree. It is 23 years since Palme was shot dead but people continue to pay tribute to one of the greatest leaders Sweden has ever known, one who also made his mark on the world scene.

But the best memorial I have seen was in Warsaw where the government built a medical facility, the Children`s Memorial Health Institute, in memory of the 2.2 million Polish children who lost their lives in the Second World War. I visited it in 1980 a few years after it was inaugurated. Now other children can live because the government chose this way of honouring the memory of the dead.

Ms Bhutto was known to be a loving mother. No one has questioned her caring approach in policy matters vis-Ã -vis children, though her politics have been criticised by many. And who would deny that she did more than any other leader for Pakistan`s children even though a lot remains to be done?

It was her government that was instrumental in Pakistan`s signing and ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In a personal way she showed concern and compassion for children. Readers may recall the case of the conjoined twins at the National Institute of Child Health, Karachi, who had left the hospital staff and their parents in a dilemma. Joined at the head, Hira and Nida had been brought there soon after their birth in 1994.

The NICH lacked the resources for the high-tech surgery needed to separate them. They seemed doomed to an unnatural existence. On the father`s desperate request, Samina Mehdi, Dawn`s health reporter at the time, kindly did a story on the conjoined twins, with their picture. Benazir Bhutto, then prime minister, read the report and immediately issued instructions to the ministry of health to arrange for the twins` surgery abroad. That is how they were taken to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, reputed worldwide for its expertise in treating cases of conjoined twinning.

The government of Pakistan bore the cost of travel and treatment. SickKids, as it`s popularly known, was set up in 1875 by a group of women led by Elizabeth McMaster whose concern for sick children was so great that they rented an 11-room house in downtown Toronto to open a hospital to admit and treat them.

Can`t we honour Benazir Bhutto`s memory by doing something for the children of Pakistan? The one billion rupees earmarked for her memorial can be utilised to launch a programme for the uplift of the state of child health in the country. It is a shame that 78 out of every 1,000 children die before they reach the age of one. Approximately 94 of 1,000 children under five die in Pakistan every year. (These are the figures given in the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2006.) Many of these lives can and must be saved.

All it calls for is a programme imaginatively designed to provide preventive healthcare for children. Let an existing children`s hospital in the country form the nucleus of this programme. The 400-bed

National Institute of Child Health in Karachi would be ideal for the purpose.

We do not need new visible structures. What we do need is manpower. If the focus is to shift from curative to preventive medicine, the need is not so much for highly qualified doctors as it is for highly motivated and committed community health workers, midwives and health visitors professionally trained for their jobs.

The programme should aim at enlisting health workers from different localities so that they work at the community level to employ their newly acquired knowledge of child health, nutrition, immunisation, diarrhoeal diseases and family planning counselling for the benefit of their own people. This cadre of health workers would form the backbone of this programme.

If efficiently run, such a programme could reduce the infant mortality rate substantially. What better tribute could the government pay to a former prime minister? Thus the one billion rupees would be well spent and contribute to a lasting memorial that would win the gratitude of mothers with young children.