Making It Happen

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the women at the heart of polio eradication

A woman health worker in Baluchistan, Pakistan, gives a child the oral polio vaccine.
A woman health worker in Baluchistan, Pakistan, gives a child the oral polio vaccine. © UNICEF

It is safe to say that polio eradication would not be possible without the contribution of women. This International Women’s Day, the theme is ‘Make It Happen: encouraging effective action for advancing and recognising women’.

Women in polio eradication vaccinate children on the frontline, implement strong surveillance and data analysis systems, provide technical and scientific support to governments, and mobilize communities. Says Melinda Mailhot of the World Health Organization on the significance of this contribution: “Without the millions of women – mothers, aunts, and big sisters – who have accompanied their children to vaccination posts, opened their doors to vaccinators and worked to deliver the vaccine themselves, we would not be this close to eradicating polio.”

In some of the remaining countries with polio, the ‘cultural capital’ of women makes them some of the most valuable assets to local polio teams. The true fight against polio takes place on the doorsteps of homes where vaccinators engage with parents on the need to protect their children. In many cases, women have a greater credibility and ability to gain trust: by speaking as concerned mothers who vaccinate their own children in Pakistan; by gaining access to households in Afghanistan where men cannot enter; by using the role of respected elder to give advice in Nigeria. In each of the areas where polio continues to circulate, women from even the most conservative areas have found socially acceptable ways to support the programme.

In Pakistan, where we face the greatest challenges to polio eradication today, the advantages of having female health workers are clear. Very young children are often missed on campaigns, which can be attributed (among other reasons) to the fact that they cannot be sent outside of the house to receive the vaccine from male health workers, as their older siblings can.  Over 80% of polio cases in 2014 affected such very young children, under 2 years of age. Polio cases are significantly fewer in areas such as Punjab, where there is at least one female health worker in over 90% of mobile health teams.

Just as the polio programme that benefits from the increased involvement of female workers, the workers reap long-term benefits. In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, female literacy students eager to apply their new skills became an important part of the eradication programme through a UNICEF led initiative. Using the social knowledge of these women, new and successful approaches were put into practice, such as vaccinating children at shrines where they were brought by their families. This gave many women the opportunity to become supervisors and independent monitors, bringing more women into managerial roles.

In the final push towards eradicating polio, women play an essential role in reaching every last child, building trust and developing locally targeted strategies. This International Women’s Day, women on the polio frontline really are Making It Happen.

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