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Girls and Boys

May 13, 2006 -- Today the Islamic Republic News Agency (the official Iranian news agency) posted a short unsigned report headlined "Pakistan to consider banning female nurses looking after male patients." It suggests that Pakistani government officials may be considering the move because of male patients' continuing harassment of the nurses. Such a measure might provide some welcome short-term protection for female nurses in a nation which is often strongly criticized for its poor treatment of women. But the measure would also seem to respond to gender discrimination by punishing the victims, male patients who do not harass, and male nurses, who would presumably be asked to care for several times more patients than they do now. The move could also lead to some female nurses losing their jobs, since they would presumably have only about half their current patient loads.

The IRNA piece reports that Pakistani Health Minister Mohammad Nasir Khan indicated to the the upper house of the Pakistani parliament that the government might consider barring female hospital nurses from caring for male patients. The Minister's comments were apparently made in response to statements by Kausar Firdous, "a Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal lady senator." Kausar Firdous reportedly "objected" to the practice of females caring for males because (in the piece's words) "incidents of female nurses being harassed at male wards continued to surface." Therefore, she argued, only male nurses should care for male patients, and female nurses should care for female patients. In an interesting final note, the piece reports that Kausar Firdous had earlier stated in response to a question that "there were as many as 85 female nursing institutions and only 15 male nursing institutions across the country." The piece does not explain what kind of "institutions" these are.

Of course, it is commendable that a government official would wish to protect female nurses from harassment. However, this response to the problem seems to assume that male harassment is immutable, or perhaps that the victims are responsible. Rather than trying to change the conduct of the harassers, which violates basic civil rights norms, the proposed measure penalizes the victims by limiting the scope of their professional nursing care. For comparison, we note that several major cities (including Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo) have created women-only commuter train cars as a response to similar problems. That approach, which still does not confront the roots of the problems, at least does not respond to male misconduct by directly limiting the activities of women.

There is also a practical problem with the nursing segregation idea, which the IRNA piece itself seems to hint at in referring to the lopsided gender composition of nursing "institutions." That suggests that perhaps 85% of Pakistani nurses are female (which would actually mean Pakistan would have a very high percentage of male nurses). In a climate where nurse short-staffing is rampant worldwide, we wonder how Pakistan would care for its male patient population if it reduced the number of nurses available to care for those patients by 85% or more. Of course, such a policy would also seem likely to place extraordinary and unfair burdens on male nurses, who might well be asked to care for several times more patients than they care for now. Conversely, female nurses might have far less to do, and some might even lose their jobs as a result.

Could this be a subtle plan to motivate a change in male behavior in a society where confronting the harassment directly may be difficult? Could it be a threat to create a hospital environment where male patients receive such dangerously poor care that they consider whether it might be better to actually stop harassing female nurses? We have to wonder whether such an approach may be a little too subtle for the average harasser.

We thank IRNA for this item.

See the article "Pakistan to consider banning female nurses looking after male patients Islamabad" posted May 13, 2006 on the Islamic Republic News Agency site. posted May 13, 2006 on the Islamic Republic News Agency site.

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