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Afghan Women Bolster Fight Against Polio - 2002-05-28

On May 27, health officials in Afghanistan staged a nationwide vaccination campaign against polio. Volunteers across the country visited city apartments, nomad tents, and even mountain caves to immunize children against the crippling disease.

In southern Afghanistan, where tradition and custom often restrict contact between women and the outside world, previous vaccination drives have reached only a fraction of the targeted children. But a bold new program in Kandahar is reaching out to these families.

Qudsia steps out of one of the cool mud-brick homes and into the midday sun that is beating on the dirt alley in Kandahar's old-town.

She adjusts the blue burqa that covers her from head to toe, before moving toward the next home. She is talking to mothers in this traditional neighborhood about the importance of vaccinating their children against diseases such as measles and polio, that still afflict thousands of children in Afghanistan.

Ms. Qudsia is part of a bold new program that in a few months has quadrupled the number of children who have been vaccinated against these diseases. She explains that she is one of 40 female volunteers.

"We are going house to house," she said. "We asking the families if any child has not been vaccinated and we are asking them what the problem was."

Until this year, vaccination campaigns in southern Afghanistan reached as little as one-tenth of the targeted population. Officials of Afghanistan's interim government want to improve this record, but they have been confronted by deep-rooted cultural sensitivities. The director of Kandahar's vaccination program, Haji Nazar Mohammed, explains that in previous vaccination campaigns, men conducted the house to house visits.

"Male team workers were vaccinating and [but] they could not knock on people's door because it is a very sensitive issue," he said.

According to custom in this society, a man cannot enter a home if the male head-of-family is not present. So, organizers recruited female volunteers like Ms. Qudsia to knock on doors. Another custom forbids women to venture out of their homes without the company of a male relative. As a result, the women volunteers are accompanied by their husbands, brothers or uncles.

The male relative takes advantage of the visit to talk to the head-of-family and encourage him to allow his wife to take their children to be vaccinated. Ms. Qudsia is accompanied by her uncle, Ghulam. Ms. Qudsia says she likes to volunteer because under the Taleban she could not work and had to stay at home.

"I would like to serve my people and my country," she said. "I would like them to go to schools. And I want to be an example, so that they will send their children to school and get educated."

Another development that has emerged under the program is meetings between the women and male leaders of the community, something that is also frowned upon in this society. On a recent afternoon, 15 female and 10 male volunteers came together at the health department to discuss the upcoming polio campaign.

One of the women leaders, a nurse named Rahila, says education goes hand in hand with good health.

"The two most important things are, first, health and then literacy, because if people are illiterate the country will not move forward," she said. "And if somebody is healthy, he can do good works."

Organizers say there have also been meetings between the women and the community's mullahs, or religious leaders, who have pledged to support the vaccination campaigns in their Friday sermons.

A physician with the United Nations Childrens Fund, Dr. Friday Nwaigwe says the program is succeeding because it has the support of the people.

"That has been the main strength of this campaign," he said. "There has been so much willingness on the part of the people to move forward to embrace the new, to make sure they can see the new time in Afghanistan."

Officials acknowledge there are certain boundaries in this conservative society that cannot be overstepped. But they say the women's volunteer program has been so successful that they plan to expand it to the rest of Kandahar Province in the coming months.