Women vaccinators challenge perceptions and change lives in Bangladesh

Women vaccinators challenge perceptions and change lives in Bangladesh

04/06/2019

Monira Parveen Mala used to watch her mother cry herself to sleep after losing one of her beloved ducks or chickens to disease. Many other families in her community were also losing their poultry, but no one knew why their chickens were dying or how to prevent it.

For many Bangladeshi women in rural villages, their chickens represent their only opportunity to earn money independently, the money they often use to send their children to school. However, until recently, up to 80 percent of chicks belonging to women like Monira’s mother were dying within 15 days of hatching – a heavy loss considering that the value of an adult chicken is six times that of a chick. But one day in her village of Tolot South, Monira finally learned the names of the illnesses killing her mother's chickens: Newcastle disease and Fowlpox. And what’s more, she learned how she could help prevent that from happening.

Veterinarian and livestock officer Dr Harun Rashid had recently started going out into the community to conduct participatory disease surveillance after receiving FAO Upazila to Community (U2C) training. This initiative encourages government livestock officers to regularly visit farmers in the sub-district, or ‘Upazila’, they oversee. “Dr Harun came to our village and explained how we could keep our chickens healthy by vaccinating them,” explains Monira. “I learned how we should separate the healthy chickens from the sick ones and bury dead chickens to prevent the spread of disease. We didn’t know any of this before,” she says.

After his students completed their vaccination training, Dr Harun provided women with a small number of free vaccines. He also encouraged them to visit surrounding communities to share their knowledge about poultry health and provide vaccination services. Monira and other women are now leveraging their newfound expertise to serve their local communities, charging modest fees that allow them to cover their expenses and even earn a small profit. This allowed them to buy vaccines after the supply provided by Dr Harun ran out and put money aside as well.

“I have been able to save two or three thousand Taka [USD 24] from vaccinating so far, and I have been able to provide for myself and my children with this income,” said Monira. Before Monira became a vaccinator, she had spent months living in her parents’ home trying to find work. She is 36 years old and raising three daughters on her own after leaving an abusive husband.

Unfortunately, the process of becoming a vaccinator was not always smooth. When Monira first started going to farms to vaccinate chickens, people would complain to her father and brothers, saying that she should not be out on her own speaking to strangers, and that she should get married again. But Monira continued to do her work and paid no attention to the villagers’ talk. “Now they don’t say anything. They see the results and the respect I am getting from the community.”

“I found a way to not only serve my community by helping all these farmers, but also a means to become self-sufficient and to provide for my daughters. For the small price of one vaccine, I can help save many chickens that are very dear to these farmers. In return, they are happy to pay me some money. The people in the community have started to regard me with respect and ask me for advice after seeing the results of the vaccination for themselves. We see fewer deaths in chickens now, farming businesses are flourishing, and our children are eating healthier foods,” says Monira.

Today, Monira has trained 30 other women to become vaccinators. They are now actively contributing to the prevention of Newcastle disease and Fowlpox, two of the most devastating diseases affecting backyard poultry in Bangladesh. The training will remain relevant for other diseases where vaccines become available. People have begun referring to Monira and her team as the community poultry doctors. She and the other women vaccinators save money from their work in a joint account, which they intend to use to set up their own commercial farm soon. “There are so many struggling women in my village. They wouldn’t be suffering if they had their own farm. I want to continue to train more women like me and continue to serve the community so that more women can become self-sufficient.”

After seeing the scale of results, FAO is aiming to apply the U2C approach to all 492 Upazilas of Bangladesh. So far, it has been applied in 350 Upazilas. With the funding support of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for Emerging Pandemic Threats, the U2C initiative has trained 1 035 district and sub-district level veterinarians like Dr Harun on technical issues so that they can pass on this knowledge to the farmers and communities they serve. Keeping animals healthy ensures that rural people maintain their livelihoods and self-reliance, two vital conditions for a #ZeroHunger future.