“Women are like grass, not trees”

Resilience and resolve are the keywords for women eradicating polio

Thanks to the unbending resolve and resilience of women health professionals as they go door-to-door across villages and mountains administering vaccine in some of the most marginalized or remote communities, women are truly the backbone of the polio programme at the ground-level. We asked a few of these women about their most daunting and heartening moments in polio, and how they worked through them.

Julia Kimutai—Community Strategy Coordinator Nairobi, Kenya

A day in the life of Julia Kimutai as a Sub-County Community Strategy Coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya. ©WHO EMRO
A day in the life of Julia Kimutai as a Sub-County Community Strategy Coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya. ©WHO EMRO

For Julia Kimutai, a 38-year-old community strategy coordinator in Kenya, educating the public about the importance of vaccines is a constant project. As a specialist in dense urban areas with high rise buildings, Julia knocks on a lot of doors and is often greeted with refusals.

“To convince some mothers is not easy,” she says. “It has never been a smooth ride.”

But where some might just see a campaign-time encounter with skeptical parents as a one-off, Julia sees a long-term project.

“Where we have difficulties is where we double down our efforts to build relationships. We even go back when there is no polio campaign to try to talk with parents, emphasize why vaccination is important and try to do a lot of health education,” she says.

As a woman and as a mother, Julia believes she is uniquely qualified as she can relate, understand and convey the importance of polio vaccines to the numerous apprehensive mothers she meets daily.

“I am a good listener, a good communicator and patient. These tools help me daily as Polio Eradicator and a mother.”

Asha Abdi Dini—District Polio Officer, Banadir, Somalia

A district polio officer with over two decades of experience in Banadir, Somalia, for Asha Abdi Dini, refusals are always heartbreaking. “My worst moment was seeing a family who had three girls and a son. They vaccinated their daughters but refused to allow the boy to take the vaccine. The boy got the polio and the girls survived.”

But Asha takes pride in the challenges she has been able to overcome since joining the polio programme.

“My best moment is seeing the same children I once vaccinated all grown up and bring their own children for vaccinations. It gives me immense hope and happiness,” she says.

Women are on the front lines of polio eradication. ©UNICEF Somalia
Women are on the front lines of polio eradication. ©UNICEF Somalia

Bibi Sharifa—Health Communication Support Officer, Islamabad, Pakistan

A continent away, for 39-year-old Islamabad district health communication support officer, Bibi Sharifa, a big part of the job is demonstrating how women can do difficult work and stand firm in the face of adversity.

“People often think that women are incapable, but they really couldn’t be more wrong. The women on our programme are extraordinary – they are strong, gentle, dedicated, humble, passionate, disciplined and fierce at the same time,” she says. “They are driven by the love of their children and their community, and despite the challenges they face, people should realize that women are like grass, not like trees: where trees can be uprooted by floods, grass can face the brunt of flood easily.”

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