Apostolic sect women defy religious teachings to save their children
'I JOINED a secret base so that I could save my children from dying. The church that I go to does not allow vaccination of children.
'I JOINED a secret base to save my children from dying. The church that I go to does not allow the vaccination of children. Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) helped me, especially with how to care for my children. All my children received BCG, polio and measles vaccinations,” says Anna Kanyati (not her real name) from the Gwamatenga area in Mwenezi district, Masvingo province.
A devout member of the apostolic sect with four children, Kanyati (22) had to secretly seek healthcare services to avoid confrontation with her husband and the church.
In 2022, Kanyati’s district, Mwenezi, was one of the ten districts hit hard by a measles outbreak that claimed the lives of 700 children across the country.
In response, the Ministry of Health and Child Care ran a measles vaccination campaign targeting children between 5 and below 15 years in partnership with UNICEF and WHO.
Social data generated by UNICEF and partners to understand the drivers of low vaccination in the Measles affected districts revealed that misinformation, disinformation, lack of community knowledge of an understanding of the importance of vaccines and religious/traditional beliefs are among the main causes of low immunization coverage among young children.
In partnership with Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust AWET, to address these challenges, UNICEF collaborated with the Ministry of Health and Child Care to increase awareness and build trust among the communities on measles and childhood immunization. With financial support from the United Nations Central Emergency Fund, UNICEF and its partners engaged hesitant communities such as the Apostolic sect to build their trust in vaccination and appreciate the health benefits of vaccinating children.
Through AWET, an organisation that engages religious women and faith leaders to increase immunisation uptake, many like Kanyati have found solace and access to invaluable education on vaccination against measles and polio.
“I am happy that I joined the secret base. At church, we are given water to heal these illnesses, which only if we knew that they required vaccination, children would not be sickly every month. At church, I ended up confessing to things I didn’t know and some I didn’t do out of fear, yet all the answers were through vaccinating my children. Sometimes we were told to take margarine and coke as medication for ailments, but the children’s condition would not change,” Kanyati confides.
“At the secret base, I am given family planning pills, and they have taught me how they are taken. Family planning has helped me nurse my child, who is now eight months old, which is rare in my church.
“My husband and I are still young and already we have four young children. It is difficult to nurse so many little children at once and this has led to some apostolic women neglecting themselves in terms of cleanliness. We have no time as the children need attention from one mother. AWET really helped me. They also taught us the importance of having toilets, washing of hands and maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” she adds.
Village health facilitator Shenet Shoko says she works with AWET to ensure children are immunised early so they do not die from preventable diseases.
“I am not a member of the apostolic sect, but my main goal is to make sure women bring children for vaccination. I work with the apostolic sect women and their husbands are a big impediment to children getting vaccinated, mainly citing their right to freedom of worship. My main duty is to mobilise these women and make sure we stop these diseases,” Shoko explains.
“I was trained by the Ministry of Health and Child Care in 2019. I now work with 15 to 20 women at the secret base, where we are winning. We have taught apostolic sect women the importance of family planning. We have been holding dialogues with these women, from the apostolic sect community and raising awareness on the importance of vaccination against measles and other vaccinations deemed necessary for the protection of children. We tell them not to hide children, but to bring them for vaccinations that are free of charge.”
Chikava Lopi, a health teacher at Gwamatenga Primary School in Mwenezi, expressed gratitude to the Health Ministry, UNICEF, AWET and other stakeholders for training village health workers to uphold the health of parents and children in their villages.
“Health workshops have helped us in this community. Working with trained health workers was an advantage to us. A lot of parents are now accepting the vaccination of children. Only a few have remained sceptical, especially religious parents who have denied their children vaccinations. We have told our people that if the government brings health programmes to our communities, we must quickly grasp and accept them, for they are for our benefit,” Chikava says.
Another village health worker, Patronella Guva of Ward 6, also at Gwamatenga Primary School, narrates how they have managed to mobilise, educate and create awareness about measles vaccination in the apostolic sect community.
“Working with AWET and the Ministry of Health and Child Care, we have managed to preach at village meetings and those who have accepted vaccination for their children come secretly. In that way, we have managed to vaccinate children from the apostolic sects,” she says.
Village health workers have penetrated the hard-to-reach areas, which has seen a lot of children getting vaccinated for measles, polio, malaria and other health cases.