By Munazza Anwaar
Having prepared an afternoon meal for her family, Fiaz Bibi, a woman in her late 20s, covers herself in a black burqa and leaves for local dispensary. Crossing muddy, uneven path that connects her one bedroom house to the main village road, she waits for 5-6 minutes scanning both sides of road for any rickshaw sign that will take her to dispensary. But there is none, and she decides to walk up to dispensary. Covering 4-5kms on thorny road, braving the weather and judging eyes of neighborhood men, she reaches dispensary.
It’s second day of door-to-door Polio vaccination campaign in her area and Fiaz Bibi is a Polio Vaccination Team Lead in this remote village near Wah Cantonment. Her decision to work for polio eradication finds strength in her love for humanity, and for her community.
Women in Pakistan have been a centripetal force in the country’s drive against Polio, zeroing in on their target with an unfaltering resolve, despite several sociocultural and economic constraints.
“My village has a high-risk population. When I see healthy and fit children running around the streets of my village, I fear for them that they may fall victim to this nefarious disease (Polio). So, I made up my mind to fight Polio till my last.”
Fiaz Bibi is a pioneer champion against Polio in her vicinity and has almost no facilitators. She is a brave female warrior in a locality where prejudice and patriarchy mar vaccination campaigns. She speaks of the barriers she has to overcome and the indiscrimination she suffers while working.
“I am a woman…but unlike other women of my village, I am determined towards a noble cause. I know there are men, and of course women, that do not like me for what I am doing, but if not me, who else? I can sense the mixed looks that see through me every time I walk around the streets to vaccinate the angels on earth. I know how it feels, how scorn and malice can bring you to your knees but, these children, they are my strength. They keep me moving forward with my head high. I will continue to vaccinate, and convince families, for the sake of these children. I know, I will.”
Fiaz Bibi volunteered as a vaccinator for some 106 families with about 556 children in a high risk populated area no one would like to go. But she does and that too with a smile on her face. She follows a 5 days per week schedule and gets paid only $20 for a week long campaign. Her task is arduous and requires a lot of traveling, on foot, with temperatures crossing 45 on most of summer days.
Each day, she walks to a local dispensary, some 4-5 kilometers from her home. It is from here that she embarks on her campaign. Her first task is to reach such homes that have had zero vaccination and find children that have been missed. Convincing families is an onerous job, often involving harsh words being hurled at her, but she braves this onslaught and comes out victorious more than often.
“Most people here work in bhathas (brick kilns) with a high turnover. The workers relocate to kilns from their native places during the season and then return. Every few months with new people coming in to work at the kilns, increasing the risk of more children being affected by polio. Due to illiteracy and lack of understanding, many people are averse to polio vaccination drives and try to avoid all efforts towards the eradication of this disease.”
In a country where Polio workers fear for their lives, women lead from the front. Despite the fact that Polio vaccinators are soft target, more and more women are volunteering to be a part of the drive against this disease. The number of women working in the field is higher because male vaccinators are not allowed to enter all premises owing to certain cultural barriers.
Fiaz Bibi says that female workers act as the backbone in Pakistan’s Anti-Polio campaign. “Women are able to understand each other better. Where men are more rigid and firm in their decisions, it is easier for me as a female to talk to the women of the house, and better explain how vaccination is going to help our future generations. Since children are the concern, mothers give in much easily.” She goes on to say that in the high-risk population that she lives in, the number of young children is increasing at an alarming rate as there is little or no family planning, risking the outbreak of an endemic. This is why Fiaz Bibi is determined to eradicate Polio from her region, and hopes that Pakistan will be free from the disease soon.
Her campaigns are well planned. She knows where to begin from, and where to end. After checking on families that have been missed, she moves on to recheck the families that have been vaccinated. “I need to make sure that no child here goes unvaccinated. I think some families are tired of the rounds I make (letting out a laugh) but it is my moral duty to ask them if they have some visitors that have unvaccinated children, or if any of their children is left.” It is a part of her routine to check upon schools as well and ask teachers to inform her of any unvaccinated child.
She is familiar with every nook and cranny of her vicinity well enough to have an accurate figure of the families and children that live there. Having accurate data of the target population helps provide ample amount of vaccination and manpower to the area.
At the day end, Fiaz Bibi, just like most housewives, returns to her house and winds up all the work she is entitled to do at her home, from washing dishes to doing laundry, from cooking to cleaning. She is no different than the rest of the ladies on any evening, except that she wears a smile of satisfaction on her face, knowing that she has further pushed Polio towards the edge of the cliff.
Even though Fiaz Bibi’s village is a high-risk vicinity, no new polio case has been discovered over the past few years, only because of her nerves of steel, and continuous efforts to vaccinate as many children as possible.
“I have been here long enough to know these people well,” says Fiaz Bibi, “I know how to tackle them, and how to convince them to vaccinate their children. This is a really difficult task, vaccinating every child, because families here are moving every now and then, but I am glad that I am able to reach as much children as possible, and every child in my area is vaccinated.
Thousands of women like Fiaz Bibi are sacrificing a lot in their efforts to eliminate Polio from Pakistan, and are hopeful of a healthier future for the children of Pakistan. These strong and hardworking women of immense courage are a silver lining for the generations to come. They are role models in the final push to end polio from country and a source of hope for polio free dream of Pakistan.