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Women's Activism and the Polio Epidemic in Syria

[ ["From Afrin to Damascus, we want polio vaccines for all children in Syria!" The Takhi Kurdish LCC in 'Afrin, Syria.]

The international press has spent the last few months actively monitoring the Geneva talks aimed at negotiating a political solution to the present conflict in Syria: from speculation to stagnation and ultimately complete disintegration. Meanwhile, and receiving relatively little media attention, a group of some two hundred Syrian doctors and eight thousand five hundred volunteers have been focusing their efforts on implementing a campaign to vaccinate children against polio in seven northern governorates inside the country.

The six-round campaign, which seeks to vaccinate two million children under five in opposition-controlled areas, began in January 2014 and has proved a success against all the odds. Having overcome the political obstacles in obtaining the necessary vaccines (which are usually only released by the World Health Organization (WHO) to official state actors), the campaign members have subsequently worked under the especially bad security conditions that accompanied the Geneva process, with the regime conducting a series of fierce barrel bomb attacks on the rebel-controlled eastern districts of Syria's largest city, Aleppo. Indeed, day two of the second round of vaccinations in February began with a ceremony to commemorate the loss of two of the campaign's volunteers (one in Aleppo, and the other in the country’s Western Idlib governorate).

Despite this, and with the third round of door-to-door vaccinations already underway, the campaign is one of a sad few success stories coming out of Syria these days. Responding to the outbreak of the disease, first recorded in Eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor back in October 2013 after the country had been polio-free since 1999, has necessitated a feat of coordination among local doctors, volunteers and data managers. The Polio Control Task Force executed the campaign: a group set up by Syrian medical professionals in cooperation with the Gaziantep-based Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) and with guidance from a number of supportive Turkish actors and INGOs.

The humanitarian virtue of the campaign to protect children on the “other side” of the front line from the highly contagious and potentially fatal virus is clear. Beyond this, however, the initiative has also served as a powerful means of mobilizing and engaging Syrian women within a context generally perceived to be hostile to female participation. Despite playing a key role in the early stages of the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, many women found themselves side-lined in a conflict environment increasingly dominated by extremist actors. 

The polio campaign offers, therefore, a new example of women's continued commitment to active and visible participation. Despite security limitations, female recruits account for at least one third of the volunteers administering the vaccination campaign across half of the country. Against all the tragedy of the present situation in the country, the campaign deserves attention as a potential model for strengthening women’s engagement in Syrian society. 

While many internationally sponsored (civil society) programs have worked to support women’s inclusion in Syria through workshops operating outside the country, they often focus on a limited population of known female activists. Little account has been given to the more incidental successes in mobilizing everyday women inside the country. Indeed, while they are mostly reasonably educated (e.g. university students), the volunteers are in many cases not (only) the typical female participants of civil society forums. The campaign documentation testifies to the inclusion of women in rather more conservative areas, in, for example, Idlib and Deir Ezzor. These women are a mix between professionals already playing a clear role in public life (e.g. teachers) and more “stay-at-home” housewives.

Dr. Khaled al-Milaji, one of the organizers in the Task Force, attributes the success in mobilizing women to the humanitarian mandate and clear objective of the campaign. “The fear of an epidemic is very real,” he explains, “and people want to act for the sake of the children.” Unlike some other initiatives, expectations upon volunteers are also clear, with participants committing their time to the campaign during each of its seven-day vaccination rounds. “Involving women,” continues Dr. Khaled, “is important for practical reasons, as it makes visiting families at home easier since often, particularly in the city where men are away at work, there are only women and children in the house.” Arin Ibesh, a volunteer with the campaign in Efrin district of Aleppo confirms that the presence of women “brings peace of mind to families.” She adds that women have participated “at all levels of the campaign’s fieldwork–administering vaccinations, recording data, reporting and supervising the vaccination teams.”

While mobility for women in Efrin is somewhat less restricted, Dr. Khaled notes that in certain areas covered by the campaign there are difficulties to integrate sufficient numbers of women into the program. Lack of security and conservative social customs can limit society’s acceptance of women’s involvement in a campaign that necessitates continual movement on the street-level. In Khaled’s view, such challenges can be overcome by effective coordination from the sub-district supervisor. This person “is responsible for selecting the right individuals as volunteers through local acquaintances and convincing others, both men and women, of the importance of female participation.” According to the recommendations of the WHO and the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) during consultations in early stages of campaign planning, the role of women has been prioritized, and supported through careful team capacitation and social mobilization.  

Both Arin and Dr. Khaled agree that women’s role is best activated through their inclusion in episodes of collective social action, with clear positive results. Very few other initiatives provide the same opportunity for a large number of women to participate in coordinated activities across several governorates. The experiences of the polio campaign seem to demonstrate that, when called upon, there is a considerable population of women prepared to take an active role in humanitarian activities. The main factor limiting women’s participation in general in Syria these days is perhaps more that most initiatives they might consider worthwhile are open to only a limited number of individuals, and even less women. 

Evaluating the campaign to date, Dr Khaled says that he is pleased with the level of female mobilization. He hopes that women’s involvement can continue to increase, stating “gradual development is the only sensible option in this respect.” Meanwhile, Arin considers that the campaign has a double benefit for female volunteers like herself. They are firstly doing their “standard duty” to protect the younger generation against a deadly disease. Secondly, the campaign “is important because it values women’s work on an equal footing with that of men.”

While hard evidence of the secondary effects of the campaign on activating women’s participation in society is difficult to come by, anecdotes from Aleppo city suggest that the visible and extensive interaction of local women with the community during vaccination rounds has indeed aided their acceptance in other community projects.  The polio campaign, as such, sets a precedent for women’s participation in large-scale action within Syria, and provides a citable example with which women can more confidently deny claims that the present circumstances do not permit them a role in supporting their people.

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