A Pakistani female vaccine worker carries a cooler of polio vaccines to the remote town of Harnai. Today she will have to administer 50 vaccines. This is her third visit to Harnai in three months and she now knows all the children there. Some of them wait for her up the street. They giggle and scatter as she approaches. She’s on a first name basis with many of the mothers, and some already feel like friends. Sitting with them in their homes they now ask her advice— “is his weight normal for his age?” She assures them that indeed the boy is normal weight for his age. She enjoys getting updates on how the children in the community are doing, “the youngest has had a growth spurt, I see,” she comments with a laugh.
Many of these mothers are not able to leave the house without the company of their husbands, making doctor’s visits hard. The social and cultural barriers that girls and women face, for just being female, can be restrictive. This is why the home visits of the Female Vaccine Workers are integral to ensuring each of the mother’s children get their three doses of oral polio vaccine; and a key reason why there is equal vaccine coverage between boys and girls, despite the barriers that women and mothers face accessing health care in Pakistan.
Back in March, RESULTS Canada sat down with Raseema Alam, a board member of RESULTS Canada who formerly worked for UNICEF in Pakistan and Afghanistan on polio vaccination campaigns. In short to ask her—are women important to the success of vaccine campaigns and are driving improved child health? The answer? Yes, very much.
“Female vaccine workers are community champions that help women and children safely access healthcare.” In many rural settings they are often the only access point to basic health care, including nutrition education and identifying basic illnesses in children. One key reason for this is female health care workers are often members of the community or districts they serve. “This has the unintended consequence of turning female vaccine workers into community leaders that spur civic engagement and community strength.”
Mothers are also key drivers of this change, Raseema added. “Mothers have a strong impetus to be powerful advocates for vaccination because they see the future, they see their children, and want to prevent their unnecessary death. They really understand the weight and the responsibility of raising healthy children, and the burden of worry that often falls disproportionately on them.” Adding that, “Once mothers are educated about vaccination, they understand that they have the tools to prevent unnecessary deaths, and they are motivated to engage their communities and networks and amplify the cause of vaccination. Their huge role in vaccination program delivery is truly an act of solidarity with the other mothers in their communities.”
Like Raseema, the Canadian Government have also recognized the essential role of girls and women as drivers of change. As stated in the government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, “women and girls have the ability to achieve real change in terms of sustainable development and peace, even though they are often the most vulnerable to poverty, violence and climate change.”
This sentiment has been reiterated within Canada’s Group of 7 (G7) Presidency whereby women and girls equality and empowerment are both a key focus of this G7 year, as well, earmarked as a crucial requirement and aim within the presidency’s five themes.
Departing from recent years, a G7 country will not be hosting a Health Ministerial during its presidential year. Canada has not prioritized basic primary health care and health for all (like routine immunization) as a key element to the achievement of their vision of girls and women’s empowerment and equality. A sentiment that is echoed within Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy as well.
Which bears the question: With 19.5 million infants missed every year by basic vaccines or only 5% of the world’s children receiving all 11 World Health Organization recommended vaccines, what does that mean for the advancement of equality and empowerment of girls and women? What does it mean for her equality when a girl child is missed by a basic health provision like vaccination? How does a young woman or mother access opportunities fostered in the other thematic areas when as a primary caregiver she is disproportionately impacted by a chronically unwell unvaccinated child?
As Raseema reminded us, women are more likely than men to lose profits, lose wages, lose their jobs and/or be less able to advance in their careers because of the disproportionate burden of caregiving. Healthy and vaccinated children mean greater opportunity for mothers to re-invest earnings and time to her family, to her future, to the realization of greater equality and empowerment. Also, given that we know that girls are more malnourished and have less access to education than boys do, a missed vaccine and decreased chance for ideal health, will compound the inequitable barriers already stacked up against her.
As women continue to drive sustainable change in their communities and societies, in tackling barriers to health care, and being champions for health; are we doing enough to ensure that that impact and drive are paid forward? We need to ensure, in our vision of equality and empowerment, that women and girls enjoy the same equitable access to health care and the benefits of good health, as that which they are driving forward for others.
– Kristiana Bruneau and Madison DeLong