From Polio Survivor To Frontline Soldier

From Polio Survivor To Frontline Soldier
Recently, Ayesha Ali Raza became an international celebrity when she flashed a postcard in the purview of TV screens on the second day of a Test match between Pakistan and Australia at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore.

“I stand for a polio-free Pakistan”, read the poster, which was broadcast in several countries, including Australia.

Ayesha, being a polio front-line worker, along with her three million colleagues, chose the venue to raise awareness regarding Pakistan’s efforts to eradicate polio from the country.

Ayesha is one of several thousand workers of anti-polio teams trying to reach out to children up to five years of age to vaccinate them.

She has been working as a patrol worker for the last eight years in Lahore. Her job is not a simple eight-hour job.

“I, being a polio survivor, can feel the importance of the polio vaccine,” says Ayesha. She insists that she should be mentioned as Ayesha, the daughter of Mia Zafarullah. She holds her father in high esteem.

"I strive to exploit every occasion to advance the cause of the end-polio effort. Because I, like millions of other Pakistanis, like cricket, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to be in the stadium and raise awareness among the crowd about the polio epidemic."

It was her first experience attending a live international cricket match in a stadium. But she chose the cause over her excitement and committed her participation to raising awareness about polio and paying respect to the valiant polio soldiers who struggle day and night to eradicate polio from Pakistan.

Every national vaccination campaign involves 260,000 frontline workers, most of them (56 percent) are women who knock on doors to administer the polio vaccine to nearly 43 million children under the age of five.

While flashing placards in a stadium might look a fancy work, in fact, Ayesha’s job is tedious and requires physical struggle.

“I don’t want to play a victim card or seek special privileges for myself,” she says, adding, she would be, however, grateful to the government if she is provided with a pick-and-drop to her and other colleagues as women’s mobility is still a big issue.

“Other than mobility concerns, the other real issue is the public attitude towards the polio vaccine. I visit Lahore’s neighbourhoods but occasionally, we face odd questions or resistance from households that ‘oh, you come again’, and ‘please, come again another time as the child is asleep’. We have to spend our energy and time convincing them to accept the vaccine for their children.” Such resistance is going down with the passage of time as a majority of the parents also welcome the teams, and even offer cold water during the summer season to the visiting team.

In addition to dealing with oppositional parents when Ayesha goes door-to-door as part of her side employment, she also encounters observant passersby.

“Well, staring is part of our culture, which makes us uneasy, but when I'm on the street doing a job, people think it is a culture-breaking move,” she says.

With time, people are accepting women working side by side with male colleagues, but 100 percent acceptance has yet to come.

“Being a woman, I feel, I also command respect from the community,” she says.

When polio workers were observed flashing cards while the game was going on, the Pakistan Cricket Board became aware of their presence in the stadium. Then PCB chairman Ramiz Raja praised the gesture too.

There are just two countries that have not yet achieved the "polio-free" milestone: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite the fact that one year has passed in both nations during which no child has been paralysed by the wild poliovirus, the objective has not been met because the poliovirus is frequently found in the environment in some regions of each nation. Every time the presence is discovered, the polio eradication campaign raises alarms, instructing field workers to vaccinate every single kid against polio.

"I'll keep doing the work, which is a mission to me until Pakistan is certified polio-free," she adds when asked about her future goals.

"By explaining my own personal experience, I can convince the parents easily about the efficiency of the anti-polio drops. No kid should ever be disabled by a disease that may be readily avoided with a very safe vaccination.”

Ayesha says that Women’s Day is close to her heart as it tells me and other people that women have to take their own decision regarding careers and education.

“Look, I became a frontline polio worker not only to support my family but also as an opportunity to express myself and move ahead in life.”

The writer is a senior correspondent at The Friday Times with a focus on politics, economy and militancy. He also hosts the Hassan Naqvi Show on Naya Daur.