Author: Jawahir Habib, October 23 2013      This story is about a female communication worker - Dedicated to all women who are working in difficult circumstances to eradicate polio.

Meet this 25-year-old Pashtoon female from Quetta, who works as a Social Mobilizer in the polio Communication Network - a network of human resource to support to the Government of Pakistan for communication and social mobilization activities for the polio eradication initiative. Balochistan is the most underdeveloped province of Pakistan where the adult female literacy rates (PSLM 2004-05) are as low as 14% and current employment as low as 22% (PDHS), mainly informal employment. [For the purposes of this blog, she is called Amna.]

Amna is one of the many females working in the network amongst more than 200 staff members in the 5 polio high risk districts - apart from the  volunteers who are involved in the polio campaigns that go door to door to vaccinated children. All of them have stories similar to Amna, stories of courage, resilience and strength.  Amna’s father died in an accident when she was just 5, leaving behind an uneducated widow, three daughters and a son with Down’s syndrome. Amna’s mother worked in home industries and as a domestic worker to get her girls educated. She started to support her mother after her school when she was 8. The family lost their home and lived their maternal uncle in a make-shift shelter for years.

For women in Balochistan, education for employment is an uphill task pushing the cultural and traditional barriers. During her schooling years, along with working part time in a home industry, Amns worked as a volunteer polio team member when the polio door-to-door campaigns were launched. The main financial support the family received was from Amna’s elder sister who was a Community Health Worker; her sister had a paralysis attack, and she lost her battle of life. “I was going through a financial crisis, my sister had passed away, and we spent all our savings in her treatment, and we were in debt. I did not know what to do,” she says. Amna had to leave her Masters exam, as she could not manage to finance it. After her sister’s death, her family was plunged in debt; being a female headed family, life wasn’t easy for the girls; they often faced harassment and threats.

In Balochistan, women have limited access to opportunities required for empowering women. Launch of COMNet provided an excellent opportunity to involve women at the grassroot level from high risk communities in a development program. Amna was appointed in one of the polio highest risk areas of the district Quetta; the population mainly residing here are in urban slums with Afghan refugees. Amna works with a team of social mobilizers focusing on creating awareness amongst the women about the importance of immunization and hygiene. There are women in the area who haven’t been outside their streets for the past 20 years; they hardly leave their homes even for basic health services. “I tell them about the importance of consulting a doctor when a woman is pregnant and child is ill, sometimes I take them along with me with permission from their husbands,” Amna adds.

Today Amna has managed to pay all her families debts with her salary; they live in their own two-room house, and she calls it a heaven. The financial stability she received from her salary changed her life; now, she can think about her education and supports her brother with special needs. Amna wrote her Masters in political science exam and is awaiting the result. ”I will be the first girl in my family to complete my Masters,” she said joyfully. As she sees, it the capacity building trainings have equipped her with skills she didn’t have before, such as writing reports and using a computer; she also helps girls living in her neighborhood with using Microsoft office.

Amna is full of ambitions and hope, knowing that girls, too, can achieve the "impossible" when empowered. Amna is amongst of the more than 6,000 polio workers who go door-to-door in Balochistan to vaccinate children against this crippling disease. Less than half of these polio teams have at least one female member.

Balochistan reported the highest number of polio cases in any province of Pakistan, where Killa-Abdullah was the district with highest number of polio cases in the country. Quetta, Pishin and Kill-Abdullah districts know as Quetta Block are considered one of the last reservoirs for polio virus in the country. Despite the fact that no confirmed case of polio virus has been reported from this area in past 12 months, factors such as low level of immunization coverage, management issues, security challenges and pockets of vaccine refusal still place this region as  one of the highest risk regions in the globe.

Working in Balochistan has enormous challenges, ongoing conflict, extreme poverty, worst health and education indicators and lack of infrastructure are only some of them. Where more than 70% of the rural population lives below poverty line, every one in two children is chronically malnourished and more than 60% of the households are food insecure.

More than 22 polio workers have been killed in past 12 months in Pakistan by militants who oppose polio campaigns dubbing them as a western conspiracy against Muslims .One of the first victims was 18 year old Imran from Quetta, who lost his life to multiple gunshots in October 2012. Frontline workers like Amna are no less then heroes, they risk their lives to get children vaccinated in one of the most difficult areas of the world.

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