By Yasmine Saker
More than 200 Syrian women risk their lives every day to save the lives of children by teaching fellow mothers about the importance of polio vaccinations in the most hard-to-reach areas, including in Dar’a in the far south of Syria, and Aleppo in the northern part of the war-torn country. UNICEF works with local partners to train these women on holding educational sessions and delivering key messages to parents of the young children.
The fight against polio in Syria is one that goes beyond administering vaccinations – it also requires changing misconceptions, especially in the most inaccessible areas.
“Being a parent myself, makes me want to protect all the children of the world,” said Suzan, a mother of three and a volunteer in Dar’a. “I learned about the importance of vaccinations from a health worker, so I vaccinated my children. But what if other mothers did not? Why should the children suffer?” she asked, explaining her drive to help out.
Suzan took advantage of any opportunity to reach out to mothers and give them critical information on protection from polio. While most of her work entailed holding informative sessions in shelters for the internally displaced people, she took innovative steps to spread her knowledge.
“During major water cuts, I’d approach women gathering to fill their cans with water and talk to them about vaccination and hygiene,” she said. “I can tell how responsive they were because they asked questions and interacted with me, especially young mothers.”
Working in hard to reach areas, the mission of these unsung heroes is dotted with challenges. According to the women, a deteriorating security situation, increased restrictions on the movement of women without a male companion and resistance against vaccinations in some parts of the country are among the obstacles they face on a daily basis.
“The violence in the area is making people hesitant to take their children to medical centres to get vaccinated,” said Jinan, a volunteer in Aleppo. Jinan noted another obstacle faced by the volunteers; the misperceptions of parents over the safety of the vaccinations.
“Parents were too scared to get their children vaccinated due to rumours,” she explained. “We clarified over and over again the credibility of the source and the importance of the polio vaccine until we convinced them.”
Despite challenges, these courageous and dedicated women are reaching out to as many mothers as possible – and getting them to vaccinate their children as a result.
“The most exciting thing is sharing your knowledge, then watching the mothers take actions based on it,” said Mariam, another community influencer in Aleppo. “One woman went and vaccinated her three children immediately after the information session”.
“Since the outbreak of polio in Syria in late 2013 that resulted in 36 recorded cases in the country, 15 massive vaccination campaigns supported by UNICEF have been rolled out combined with raising public awareness at the community level,” explained Hanaa Singer, UNICEF representative in Syria.
The campaigns reached more than 2.9 million children under the age of five across the country. Many were vaccinated several times. “We were able to reach some children living under siege or in areas hard-to-reach. However, we estimate that some 80,000 children continue to miss out on the life-saving vaccination,” warned Singer.
“Mothers listen and relate better to other mothers,” said Dr. Nidal Abou Rshaid, UNICEF immunization officer. “The volunteers’ role is extremely important because they are more capable of delivering the information.”
Yasmine Saker is a Communication and Reporting Consultant working with UNICEF Syria.