Resilient women drive polio eradication in Pakistan

To end polio we must overcome gender barriers and support equality everywhere.

Thousands of women work in the Pakistan polio eradication programme as scientists of many specialties, managers, data experts, vaccinators, front-line team supervisors and social mobilizers. We asked a few of them about gender equality in their work.

Dr. Maryam Mallick supports equality everywhere. ©WHO Pakistan/Sadaf Kashif

Dr. Maryam Mallick: The Medical Rehabilitation Specialist

“Women face extra difficulties in trying to prove themselves and often compete in an outnumbered male dominated work environment. But with the right support, they persevere and excel in their tasks.”

Dr. Maryam Mallick is one of the first female technical advisors for disability and rehabilitation at the World Health Organization in Pakistan. Her job involves assessing children with polio paralysis to ensure that they receive medical and social rehabilitation care.

Dr. Mallick works to ensure that all children, especially girls, are given access to quality healthcare as well as equal opportunities in society.

“There were many instances where parents did not want their polio affected daughters to be sent to the schools. We need to start perceiving gender equality as a fundamental human right inherently linked to sustainable development, rather than just a women’s issue,” she says.

“Women’s empowerment in achieving sustainable development has now been globally recognized as the centrality of gender equality. It does not mean that men and women become the same, rather it means that everyone can have equal rights and equal opportunities”

Under Dr. Mallick’s supervision, one thousand children have been assisted by the Polio Rehabilitation Initiative since 2007.

Dr. Iman Gohar: The first female Provincial Rapid Response Unit Lead in Sindh province

Dr. Iman Gohar strikes the #EachforEqual pose, used to promote gender equality. ©WHO Pakistan/Dawood Batozi

“Many women in the programme have enormous talent and endless potential. These women are key to enabling success across the polio eradication effort.”

Dr. Iman Gohar joined the Pakistan polio eradication programme six years ago, working as a Polio Eradication Officer in Peshawar and then as the Divisional Surveillance Officer in Hyderabad. Today, Dr. Gohar is the first woman to lead the Provincial Rapid Response Unit in Sindh.

Dr. Gohar’s work involves leading investigations into suspected polio cases and organising case response campaigns. An increased number of environmental samples found positive for the poliovirus in Sindh in the 2019-2020 period has meant a busy workload.

“Polio eradication is an incredibly demanding job. I work for long hours and enjoy one day off in the week. While performing my job, I work hard to take complex goals and convert them into high quality deliverables,” she says.

“The programme has provided women with a very conducive environment to grow, learn and voice their opinion. For this, I am very grateful.”

When talking about how the programme can improve gender equality, Dr. Gohar stressed the role and support of her male colleagues.

“I believe for us to achieve true gender equality, it is essential that our male co-workers become advocates for equality. Men and women must both hold each other up, celebrate each other’s successes and recognize that each and every person, regardless of gender, is playing an important role in safeguarding the health of Pakistan’s children.”

Making the sign for #EachforEqual. ©WHO Pakistan/Saima Gull

Salma Bibi: A Health Worker in Killa Abdulla district, Balochistan province

“Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than knowing how I have helped people through my duties. I believe that creating opportunities for women is one of the best ways to empower them.”

Salma has been a community health worker for over a decade, working in Killa Abdullah district in Balochistan province. Around 90% of the district is overseen by male health workers, so Salma is one of the few women who go door to door to ensure that children are vaccinated.

Salma often feels greater resistance from community members than her male counterparts. “I hear a lot of negative comments from community members, especially when covering vaccine hesitant families. These words can sometimes de-motivate and de-moralize us from our duties,” she says.

Despite this challenging environment, Salma recognizes that her role is integral to get parents to understand the importance of vaccination.

“When our male colleagues cannot enter the homes, we play an important role in filling that gap. We go in and we sit with the mothers to help them understand that vaccinating against polio is the only way to protect their children. Often, the time spent talking to them is enough, and this makes us feel good, like we are truly helping our nation’s children.”

Saba Irshad: The first female Programme Data Assistant in Multan district, Punjab province

Committed to gender equality. ©WHO Pakistan/Saima Gull

“The greatest challenge that the majority of the professional women face is the perception that they are not as qualified or competent as their male colleagues, irrespective of their experience, education, potential or achievements. Because of this, women often have to work twice as hard.”

Saba Irshad has worked with the Pakistan polio eradication programme for eight years. She is known by her colleagues for her quick problem-solving skills and meticulous work. As a Programme Data Assistant, Saba is responsible for collecting and analyzing data from campaigns implemented in Multan district, in Punjab province.

Saba emphasizes the need for the polio programme to continue to support and encourage their female workforce, and promote an inclusive work environment.

“On average, 62% of the vaccinator workforce in Pakistan are women. This shows just how important women are to polio eradication.”

“Without these women, the programme would be unable to reach thousands of children with the vaccine.”

To learn what the Global Polio Eradication Initiative is doing to promote gender equality, visit the gender section of our website.

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