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A Giant Leap of Faith for Child Health in India

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Twenty years ago, it was in the predominantly tribal district of Gadchiroli in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra that a young doctor couple started their SEARCH (Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health) for a viable and sustainable method to save the thousands of newborns in the region who died even before they got a chance to live. Today, Dr Rani and Abhay Bang's giant leap of faith for child health in the midst of pure wilderness has not only resulted in the empowerment of ordinary village girls through training and practice in life saving measures, it has also bridged the gap between life and death for the young ones. An excerpt from 'Beautiful Country - Stories From Another India'

As with the other Naxal-hit areas Gadchiroli too has a large tribal population; 38.3 per cent according to the 2001 Census. ...

Twenty years ago, it was in this predominantly tribal district of Vidarbha that a young doctor couple started SEARCH (Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health). Both Abhay and Rani had been brought up in the Gandhian tradition. After getting their MBBS and Masters in Public Health degrees from the John Hopkins University, USA, they decided to plough back their knowledge into Indian soil. Their idea, rooted in their Gandhian principles, was simple. They wished to build an Aarogya Samaj - a society where people's health is placed in their own hands. They wanted most of all to find a viable and sustainable method to save the thousands of newborns who die even before they get a chance to live. Therefore, they started their laboratory for saving newborns amid the verdant forests, seventeen kilometres from the district headquarters. Thus was born Shodhgram, literally the 'searching village'. ...

Empowering ordinary village girls with training and practice to administer life-saving measures was their giant leap for child health in the midst of this wilderness. ...

... a meeting had been arranged with thirty-three village health workers. We sat in a circle and Abhay spoke simple words of a prayer. We looked at the women; most of them thirty or older, saris pinned to their shoulders, hair coiled in buns most often decorated with flowers. These women worked in the villages which had been adopted by the organization. Every two months, they visited Shodhgram for a few days of refresher training. They made mistakes, their wages were docked but if they conducted thirty successful deliveries in a row they earned a reward of Rs 200.

We looked around the room at these village women, most of whom had studied no more than Class 6 or 7. They were ordinary women who had done the extraordinary. They had reduced neonatal mortality in their villages by 56 per cent. Besides protecting newborns, they also work in the fields, cook, clean, raise children, and look after the elderly. In a remote corner of Maharashtra, these women are bringing a slow and silent revolution. Not only are they saving the lives of newborns, they are also striving for a better and healthier life for the women.

Wearing a pink sari neatly pinned on her shoulder, Manisha, from the village of Pardi, spoke first. 'When the village doctor's own child got sepsis, he asked me to treat him. Didi, we have saved babies who weighed just 800 gm. Village doctors refer cases of sepsis and pneumonia to my friends and me. Even the "jhola doctors" (quacks) are happy to have us around because they, too, are afraid of touching a newborn.'

Two older women sitting to our left were whispering to each other. Abhay said they were senior workers, Gyanwati Sheokhand and Durga Devi. 'Do you want to say something?' he asked. Hesitantly, Durga spoke of the traditional childbearing practices which they have been fighting for years. 'Till the umbilical cord falls, women are not allowed to step out of the delivery room. The placenta is placed in a pit right inside the room and women have to clean themselves and answer nature's call in the same pit. This has led to widespread infections, especially sepsis.' Then Gyanwati added: 'Immediately after birth, the baby is cleaned with rice husk. The result is severe skin inflammation. Then, to make her cry, the child is bathed with cold water. No clothes are out on her for almost a month.' While they spoke, we recalled that infant deaths due to pneumonia constituted one-fourth of the total infant deaths in the country.' For three days after birth, the baby is only fed gur paani (jaggery water), not breast milk, due to the belief that the mother's first milk is poisoned. Didi, gur paani causes diarrhoea. This is what we are fighting.' Other women nodded. 'Most of our own babies were fed this way,' Anjana said. 'Some of them died within two days.'

After this, for a few moments no one spoke. A bright-looking, thirty-year old Chandrakala Kharvade from Dhonde Shiveni broke the silence. She said, 'But things are changing. Now we clean the child, wrap her in warm clothes and make sure she is breastfed within thirty minutes. We warn the mother and mother-in-law to clean and air-dry their hands before touching the child. Didi, today I can speak the truth. We have given 15,000 Gentamicin injections and there was not a single complication, leave alone death!'

As we listened to these women, we began to understand why they were successful in an area where other similar experiments had failed. These women belong to the village; they are the chachis (paternal aunts), mamis (maternal aunts), bahus (daughters-in-law) and betis (daughters). People have seen them since they were little or when they first entered in the villages as brides. They have observed them with newborns, saving the lives of babies. They have seen them always available in case of an emergency. These are women they can count on rather than the scarce and elusive doctors and nurses. With trust came the confidence to gradually give up age-old practices, and to follow the methods advocated by this band of dedicated young women.

(Excerpted from 'Beautiful Country - Stories From Another India' By Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda; Published by Harper Collins; Pp: 365; Price: Rs 399)

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