One woman’s journey of strength, transformation and hope to end Polio
Frontline workers like Reshma play a key role as Pakistan strives for a polio-free future for every child
Reshma (name changed) was 28 years old when her husband passed away. She was married off young and never worked. She now faced the daunting task of providing for her three daughters – Fizza (13), Saba (11), and Eesha (9). With no immediate respite in sight, she moved into her mother’s home with her daughters. Her father had passed away in 2001, and the family relied on the meagre savings he had left behind.
“I never thought our lives would change in this way,” shares Reshma ruminating about her life.
Reshma's path from despair to becoming a Community Health Worker is an exceptional tale of resilience and determination. Today, she not only saves lives but also challenges societal norms, shattering expectations and inspiring her daughters to dream big.
Reshma’s childhood was shrouded in poverty and struggles. She never completed schooling, and thus was determined to educate her daughters and give them a good life. To help realise this dream, in 2018, she discreetly applied for a Community Health Worker position at her local Community Polio Vaccination Programme.
For the first six months of her job, Reshma didn’t tell a soul about her new job, not even her mother. She explained, "In our Pathan culture, women are expected to refrain from even answering the door, so going out for work was viewed as utterly disgraceful."
On her third day working as a health worker in Karachi, Reshma was distraught to learn of a recent shooting in the area targeting health workers. “I was very scared and overwhelmed in that first month. I used to come home and cry every day,” she recalls. However, when she confided in her programme supervisor, they arranged for security to accompany her on her rounds in the neighbourhood.
Despite the underlying risks and fears, Reshma continued with her work, fighting deeply rooted misconceptions, educating families and making sure children received the lifesaving polio vaccine. Within her first year, Reshma progressed to the role of a supervisor, managing a team of three health workers who collectively covered 1,174 households.
Describing their mission to counter vaccine misinformation among deniers and hardliners as a ‘muqabla’ (challenge), Reshma recounts.
"Families who were sceptical would show us videos claiming children's deaths after vaccination. We countered by presenting videos featuring endorsements from doctors and religious leaders who assured the vaccine's safety."
And her perseverance paid off. Thanks to the efforts of Reshma and other health workers, the number of households in the area refusing to administer vaccines for their children dropped to just five families.
The team had to use innovative strategies to gain the trust of local families. "There was one household, with six children, that had always refused the vaccine," Reshma recalls. "During one of our visits, we discovered they were hosting a wedding party." The mother requested that Reshma apply henna to her hands. "I told her I would do it only if she allowed us to vaccinate her children, and she agreed!" Reshma says with a chuckle. "I still had other houses to visit on my rounds, but I knew that by doing this, I would build a bond with her, and she would trust me. Our ultimate goal is to vaccinate all children, and we find any means necessary to achieve that."
Reshma remarried recently. But she has no intention of quitting her job.
She explains, "My life has been completely transformed since I started working. I used to feel almost mute, but now, I talk to strangers without hesitation. I have developed a sense of pride and self-sufficiency because I provided for myself and my children."
She still covers her daughters' school and college fees with pride. Her daughters have witnessed their mother's transformation and now harbour dreams of their own. Fizza aspires to join the police force, while Saba and Eesha dream of becoming a lawyer and a doctor.