Using traditional folk songs to tackle fear of vaccines among tribal communities in Rajasthan

Frontline workers like Navli are playing a crucial role in fighting deeply embedded misinformation and rejection of vaccines among Garasia tribal communities

Sonia Sarkar
25 July 2022

SIROHI, India - The sequins on 30-year-old Navli Garasiya's bright yellow and green Rajasthani dress sparkles in the sun as she dances to an adapted traditional tribal song in the backdrop of the picturesque Aravali hills in Mount Abu, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. The song speaks about the benefits of vaccines. Navli belongs to the Garasiya tribe, residing mainly in Rajasthan's Sirohi district. 

 As the world observes World Immunization Week from 24-30 April, it is thanksgiving, a time for health workers and frontline workers like Navli. They play a crucial role in fighting deeply embedded misinformation and rejection of vaccines among remote, tribal communities. Body piercing (except tattoos) has been traditionally taboo in this community. 

The firmly embedded resistance to needles was challenging for frontline workers as the community refused to vaccinate children for the Government run Routine Immunization programmes. The population showed the same resistance when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and vaccination of the vulnerable adult populations was rolled out in early 2021.

To address the situation, UNICEF supported civil society Jan Chetna Sansthan, who was roped in. Navli was engaged as a public health volunteer to work along with Sharmi Bai, the Block Development. 

Commissioner has also served as the Panchayat (Village Council) President of Nichalagarh in the Sirohi district. Sharmi, a proud woman leader from the Garasiya tribe, has motivated other women to take the lead and catalyze healthier practices for the community. 

Joining Navli and Sharmi is 106-year-old Huji Bai, who has become an icon for the community. Coaxed by Navli and Sharmi, Huji Bai got her first ever vaccine only a year ago, as taboos and social norms had kept her from vaccinations for years. 

Huji Bai's wrinkled face breaks into a smile. "I have set an example. Vaccines protect lives," she says, fondly watching her grandchildren playing nearby. Her age and conviction in the vaccine have encouraged other community members to take their doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The fact that she is safe and healthy, even after taking the vaccine, helped demolish fears and change mindsets.

Huji Bai
106-year-old Huji Bai, who has become an icon for the community. Coaxed by Navli and Sharmi, Huji Bai got her first ever vaccine only a year ago as taboos and social norms had kept her away from vaccinations for years.

Now, almost everyone in the village has taken the COVID vaccine. Navli has leveraged this public trust to convince parents to come forward and immunize their young children for immunization. Working with traditional songs orally transmitted across generations, Navli has discreetly turned the tide.

She leverages the trust gained through the COVID-19 vaccine acceptance to gently nudge parents toward children's immunization through the Government's Mission Indradhanush programme. Vividly called a 'Rainbow', the Intensified Indradhanush 4.0 (IMI 4.0) campaign launched in March 2021 is designed to reach the unvaccinated and left out children.

As per the WHO UNICEF National Estimates of Immunization Coverage, more than 30.2 lakh children in India missed essential vaccines through routine immunization services during the COVID-19 pandemic (WUNEIC 2020-21). Meanwhile, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, has categorized at least 12.4 million children worldwide as "zero-dose", living in missed communities that cannot access many essential services, including health care.

Zero-dose children have not received a single shot of a routine vaccine. Programmes like the IMI 4.0 – emulated globally – go a long way in covering this gap, boosting Routine Immunization coverage and achieving the full immunization coverage of 90 per cent of children and pregnant women. 

As Navli sings in her local dialect at the village health fair and the Primary Health Care Centre, her multi-coloured dress smiles in the sun, merging with the vivid rainbow colours of the 'Mission Indradhanush' logo. The song's words have been adapted to coax her community to take up vaccination. 

Local NGOs such as the Jan Chetna Sansthan, supported by UNICEF, have been instrumental in supporting women like Navli to create awareness on immunization and help break taboos associated with vaccination in this remote village reaching the scattered huts is a challenge.