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

SIROHI, India – The sequins of the Rajasthani yellow and green dress of Navli Garasiya, 30, glisten in the sun as she dances to a traditional tribal song adapted against the backdrop of the scenic Aravali Hills in Mount Abu, western Indian state of Rajasthan. The song is about the benefits of vaccines. Navli belongs to the Garasiya tribe, residing mainly in the Sirohi district of Rajasthan.

As the world observes World Immunization Week from April 24-30, it’s Thanksgiving, a time for health workers and frontline workers like Navli. They play a crucial role in countering deep-seated misinformation and rejection of vaccines within remote tribal communities. Body piercing (with the exception of tattoos) is traditionally taboo in this community.

The entrenched resistance to needles was a challenge for frontline workers as the community refused to vaccinate children for routine government-run immunization programs. The population showed the same resistance when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and vaccination of vulnerable adult populations was rolled out in early 2021.

To remedy the situation, UNICEF supported civil society Jan Chetna Sansthan, who was enlisted. Navli was hired as a public health volunteer to work with Sharmi Bai, Block Development.

The commissioner also served as the chairman of the Panchayat (village council) of Nichalagarh in Sirohi district. Sharmi, a proud leader of the Garasiya tribe, has inspired 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 received her very first vaccine only a year ago, as taboos and social norms had prevented her from getting vaccinated for years.

Huji Bai’s wrinkled face cracks into a smile. “I led by example. Vaccines protect lives,” she says, looking fondly at her grandchildren playing nearby. Her age and belief in the vaccine encouraged others in the community to take their doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The fact that she was safe and healthy, even after taking the vaccine, helped to demolish fears and change mindsets.

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