Today, like every other day for Nazaama starts at 4 a.m. She walks empty alleys, rummaging through the trash bins before the garbage trucks make their morning rounds. Using a stick to dig deep into the mounds of mixed household rubbish, she picks out discarded plastic bottles, collecting them in the large sling bag across her shoulders.
After five hours, she hurries back home, happy with her cache that she sells for less than US$3 to the informal shops that recycle the plastic. Today her children will have a full meal.
This is Chandmari – an urban settlement of 417 rag picker families in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, just 20 miles from India’s national capital New Delhi.
Living in tattered huts made of plastic sheets and bamboo sticks with electric wires drawn illegally from the municipal supply, Chandmari is a settlement that the world has forgotten.
“Kismet. This is fate. Life has to be lived somehow,” says Nazaama sitting on her cot made of rope. She seems tired, but her face, framed by a blue shawl, has a certain strength as her soft voice fills the hut.
Hers was a love marriage – the first in the close-knit community of rag pickers. Married at 18 to Abrar, who earns a living from performing stunts and magic tricks on the streets, she has four children. Unlike many of the parents in Chandmari, Nazaama has made sure all of her children are fully vaccinated.
A vaccine advocate
In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, only 50 per cent of children are fully immunised. District Ghaziabad where Chandmari is located has over 12,000 families working and living at 365 brick kilns, 118 construction sites, 42 nomadic settlements and 131 slums. Out of 656 sites with high-risk groups, almost 6,000 children under 5 years of age should be fully vaccinated. Fewer than 1,000 are.
Dropout rates are high. Myriad reasons are given. The child was sick. Last time there was a fever. We were visiting. I am a daily labourer and if I don’t earn, then what will my family eat? Or simply not knowing. Parents are not educated about the number of vaccines needed, the diseases that they prevent, and the timing of the shots.
In a community where most mothers do not understand the long-term health benefits of immunisation, Nazaama is a rare advocate for vaccines.
She understood the benefits of immunisation early. When her oldest child, Aafiya, was born eight years ago, Saarika Khanna, a community mobilizer from UNICEF’s social mobilisation network, counselled Nazaama about the importance of protecting the child against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and pneumonia.