Pashtun elders team up against polio in Lahore
By Wasif Mahmood
Lahore, Punjab – June 26, 2013 - “Everybody line up and wait for your turn and show them that you are civilised children”, Sajid Ali, a polio volunteer, shouts in Pashtu to discipline a crowd of cheerful kids anxiously waiting to be given polio drops in Union Council 69 in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city.
Ali, a Pashtun in his early twenties, is one of thousands of volunteers who have committed to fight polio after attending the Jirga (Pashtun tribal assembly of elders) in Lahore this year.
“To convince Pashtuns about polio vaccination is the most difficult task in the world, but if you are a Pashtun yourself, the job is half done,” says Ali. Ali has moved to Lahore three years back after military offensive in his district against militants in his home district Buner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in north-west Pakistan.
Union Council 69, home to over 11,000 local children and another 5,000 Afghans and Pashtuns migratory nomads and internally displaced people living with open sewerage drain, has been declared high risk polio area.
Pakistan has suffered most of the polio cases in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and KP. Nearly 80 per cent of the polio affected children in Pakistan come from Pashtu speaking communities who are likely to receive fewer dozes of polio vaccine.
While pursuing his religious studies at Jamia Ashrafia in Lahore, Ali dedicates considerable time and effort going door to door with Communication Network (COMNet) teams during the anti-polio campaign to improve access and reduce family and community resistance to vaccination.
Pashtun communities, hailing from seven agencies of FATA and KP have huge presence all over the country including Lahore. Polio eradication partners aim to bring all of them at one platform through social forums like Jirgas to forge a joint front against polio.
Following the example of Lahore, the government has been able to expand its influence in Pashtun community of Rawalpindi and Faisalabad through successful Jirgas which were a joint initiative of the government and the Communication Network (COMNet), ably supported by the UNICEF.
The COMNet is, a framework through which communication efforts are being channeled at provincial, district, union council levels as well as in communities. To date, around 1,000 COMNet staff in 43 districts across Pakistan strives to mobilize communities to ensure that all children are vaccinated in every round.
“I was convinced to support the COMNet by Maulana Wasim who besides being an active Jirga member, also works as anti-polio influencer. I often attend awareness sessions with social mobilization staff to convince my community about vaccinating their children against polio”, says Ali.
The COMNet have managed to rope in influencers and locals among Pashtun population, thus contributing to refusal conversion which has increased steadily and is now approaching 70 per cent.
“Jirga has given us immense penetration in the high risk community. Now we have all Pashtun elders and young men at our back. Pashtun boys go with health workers in all neighbourhoods wherever a family refusing vaccination based on religious misunderstanding or lack of communication has been identified,” District Health Communication Support Officer Naeema Khan explains.
“The communication barrier has been broken with the involvement of Pashtun volunteers. Health workers can roam freely in Pashtun neighbourhoods keeping in mind their norms and traditions”, she observes.
Large number of Pashtun representatives at the Jirga has agreed to support polio vaccination teams in their security troubled areas and where high number of refusals has been registered.
Executive District Officer-Health Dr Inaumul Haq sees overwhelming results of Jirga motivation among Pashtuns participants whose number has overshot the expected number of guests to almost double.
“The Jirga proved to be a tipping point which ultimately changed huge pockets of chronic hostility towards health workers’ teams. The Jirga participants have secured hundreds of volunteers for polio vaccination campaigns. The number of refusals in Pathan Colony, notoriously known as no-go area for polio teams, and Bund Road area, dropped to zero,” says Dr Haq.
Volunteer Sajid Ali proudly says “I could count several issues listed by the Pashtun community to refuse polio vaccination but all of them were solved ‘over a cup of tea”.