“Saving the future of our children”: The women fighting polio in Pakistan
Pakistan is one of two countries where wild poliovirus remains endemic making it essential that the entire country supports the successful implementation of every polio campaign. Women play a critical role, often working at polio’s frontline.
Health interventions and immunization activities are most effective when delivered by women. During each nationwide polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan, women make up around 62 percent of the 280, 000+ frontline workforce vaccinating millions of children across the country.
With each campaign depending on the dedication of staff to reach all children, given their trusted roles and responsibilities in communities, female polio frontline workers are playing a key role in eradicating polio.
Breaking barriers to immunization
After three years as a monitor of campaign activities, Zubaida Bibi has progressed from being a polio team member to a team leader in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the country’s north, one of the most affected areas in Pakistan.
Breaking the gender-related barriers to immunization, Zubaida travels extensively including hard-to-reach areas. Not even the winter season, when the roads and tracks are covered with snow, deters Zubaida.
“It leaves us with no option but to travel for miles and hours on foot to reach the children,” she says “Despite the challenges, I always try and motivate my teams, telling them that we are on a national mission to save the future of our children,” she says.
“It gives me a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction when the community appreciates our efforts for improving the health of their children,” adds Zubaida.
For nine years, Shumaila Majeed has worked as a community-based health worker in Lahore, with a firm belief in empowering women and supporting their important presence in the polio programme.
Mothers would frequently ask her about the safety of the polio vaccine. “I would always tell them that the polio vaccine is totally safe for their children and build their trust,” says Shumaila.
“It’s very important to have women in every walk of life,” she explains. “Not only because women and grandmothers feel more comfortable when their children are vaccinated but to give more opportunities for woman to grow and excel.”
Through her work Shumaila wants to give young girls a message: stay focused on their goals and leave no stone unturned to make their dreams come true.
In Pakistan, a significant number of parents and caregivers still doubt the effectiveness of vaccines. Karachi has long been a core reservoir for the poliovirus, with continuous and intense circulation.
Shagufta Naz, a community-based health worker in charge of Gulshan town, has been working for 21 years to ensure all children in her area are vaccinated on time. “Initially, parents used to hide their children from us due to their fear,” she explains.
Everyone who works with Shagufta is immediately impressed by her great care, her attention to detail and her meticulous record-keeping which is key to achieving vaccination targets. As a result of Shagufta’s hard work, vaccine refusals have reduced significantly. Her work is now so highly regarded that some parents will only have their children vaccinated by Shagufta, asking for her by name with each polio campaign.
“I got to know the community very well, built their trust,” she explains. “I know every pregnant woman and can tell you when she is due. Now, mothers regularly ask me about the next vaccination campaign.”
Going against all odds
Gul Parana, a Tehsil Communication Officer for the polio eradication programme in Balochistan province in the country’s southwest, recently graduated with a master’s degree.
Assigned to raise awareness about the benefits of vaccination in Chaman District, one of the most challenging areas for the polio programme, she is proud of her work despite many challenges.
“Since Chaman is a very remote and conservative area, it’s not easy for a young girl like me to go out of the house. Most of my friends are not allowed to work. But I have a mission to save our children and give them a healthy future,” she says.
With support of her family, Gul Parana has become a symbol of strength for the girls of her locality. “I want to inspire other girls so they can also get an education and work. We need to have equal opportunities for every girl in Balochistan,” she adds.