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Monday, March 25, 2013

Echoes of the Past!

“How can you make her speak when she has been born dumb!” still echoes in my heart. It was the monthly meeting at the sub-centre where we all (Anganwadi workers and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) of our area, along with Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM)) met regularly. The only difference was that ‘higher’ officials from CARE had come to meet us today! CARE, an organization working with us had been organizing such meetings for many months now.

Introducing himself as District officer-Outreach in CARE, he started taking feedback of the previous meetings. Suddenly he asked me if I knew ‘how to care for an infant’. I heard him talk about some competitions also which make our work known to all, I had not missed even a single meeting ever since they began. I knew the answer to his query; but I stared at him point blank!

My problem was different! No, I wasn’t dumb as ‘others’ teased me. I had come to become dumb after such long years of repression. Born in a ‘Chamar’ (marginalized schedule caste) community in Ujiarpur, Samastipur; I had seen the burden of life since start. I had 6 younger siblings to take care of; and became a mother at that age. With dark plain looks, short height, curly hair and no money to back up, I was married to first boy they could find. I was hardly 15 then. It was a tender age and I took it as my fate to be abused by in-laws and my husband alike. Whatever little he earned was spend on his drinks. After 5 years, I was survived by 5 children and a mother-in-law. My husband had migrated to Bangalore for ‘work’ and probably forgotten all about us.

In order to pacify the fire of the belly, I applied for the vacancy of ASHA (a volunteer worker for mother and children) in the village. The area for which I was selected was a ‘upper caste’ people dominated. Here too, I had to face a lot of oppression; caste, class and gender all stood between me and my work. By attending sub-centre meets, I could build up my knowledge, but could I fight the disparities of the society?

The answer came through my door one morning. I recognized him as the same official who had asked me a question during sub-centre meet. He wanted to visit my area of work with me. I hesitated, but realizing that nothing much I could do in that, relented!

As I moved through the community I lived in, he started asking people if they were getting my services. “I do not work here”, agitated I faced him. “Then why don’t you? They are ‘your’ people and the ones who actually need you! If you will not work for them, then tell me who would?” He smiled back.

That struck me! There was no ASHA or Anganwadi worker working in that area. Probably he was right; they needed someone, they needed me! That day I decided to do something about myself and my people! This way I did not have to fight the community, only myself!

I asked for his help and time that he most willingly agreed to provide. “The first step is to know ‘whom’ to focus”, he told me. It was an area of 1300 population, Ram tola with predominantly ‘chamar’ community (Hindus as well as Muslims). In next few days, he asked me to make a record of pregnant women, infants and children in the area.

Since, there was no Anganwadi centre in the tola, ANM didi did not come here for immunization. I decided to do something for the same. Next Wednesday I gathered all the women and children who were yet to be immunized and took them to Malti, ANM didi in the neighbouring Anganwadi centre. Indu devi, Anganwadi sevika was surprised at the number of women and children I had gathered; it was the first time I had turned up at immunization day! “Sister, they need services; yours and mine, much more than the ones who are currently receiving them” I told Indu devi. Later on, with efforts from CARE block coordinator and higher CARE officials, we succeeded in convincing Indu devi to include Ram tola in her area as well. Now, she provides the mandatory supplementary nutrition to pregnant women, mothers and children of Ram tola as well. It was a big win against the hypocrisy and caste system prevalent there.

On the day of the next sub-centre meeting, ANM didi informed everyone of my work during the month. I felt shy as well as proud, both at the same time. That month, CARE introduced a register which was called Home visit planner. As others were lamenting about another register to fill, I saw it as an opportunity to expand my horizon further. Now, I could keep a record and plan my work; whom to visit and when! They also gave us a small book along with it. It was the mobile kunji, which became the kunji (key) for my work! As it was easy to carry around, with attractive pictures and messages on it; I used it well. Since most of the women in my community were illiterate (I was one of the fortunate ones to study till 12th standard), they understood by ‘looking’ at the pictures in the kunji.


It was mid-afternoon and Geeta had just delivered a baby boy. She was one of the many women from Ram tola who had delivered in Primary Health Centre this month. Others were surprised; I was proud of the fact! Now, I was initiating breastfeeding the baby in the labour room itself in-spite of protests from the dais (who clean the floor after the delivery) there. They wanted to clean up the area first. “Immediately breastfeeding the baby first is more important than cleaning the floor; this would also help in reducing the blood loss of the mother”, I informed them as ANM didi nodded at me.

Just then I saw the official from CARE there. I ran outside to greet him. Surprised, he smiled at me and asked, “What happened to you? Broke your mon-vrat (vow of silence)?” “Yes and much more than that!” I sheepishly answered.

Next sub-centre meeting, we met again. He had particularly come to attend our meeting. And I was ready for all his questions this time. “Does she talk now?” he asked others, smiling at me. “Bahut bolti hai sir! Kya jadu kiya hai, humko bi kuch sikha dijiye!” they boomed together! (She talks too much, what magic have you done? Please teach us also something now) As other ASHAs resound today “Make us like Kirani (as they call me), I can only smile and remember the echoes of the past!

‘What is worse than losing your dignity?’ Losing faith in oneself! That is the blunder I did. But not any more! I have discovered myself for good now. CARE has made a great impact in my life. Every morning I look within my heart to hear the echoes of the past who give me a new challenge each day as I try to ‘Make My Impact’ on many other lives now!   


CARE, a Caring organization!

“I have to submit this application! I simply cannot miss this wonderful opportunity”, mumbling this to myself, I started another unfinished job as my supervisor called out for me. It was another day being spent in frustration, but the difference was that I had something going on in my head! It was just about 5:30, perhaps the closing time, when I clicked on the vacancies in CARE portal and uploaded my application on the same.

Next thing I knew, I was on the train to Delhi to attend the interview in a project called Integrated Family Health Initiative (IFHI). The interview was an experience which made me smile throughout the day! One moment I was talking to a group of animated young professionals to help ‘us’ get to a conclusion during group activity, and the very next moment I was sitting in front of a desktop analyzing my feelings in different situations!

My joy knew no bounds when I heard from ‘them’. The first thing which caught my attention was the name of the organization; “CARE” it evokes a kind of warmth to hear that. For a beginner who was still not very sure of herself, it was ecstatic to hear from an organization which had a ‘big name’ (Especially when I had tried hard to do an internship during summers in CARE and had no success in that!).

I had not yet joined CARE, when I attended one of its meetings. It changed my complete outlook towards my job. I wanted to be right there, in the midst of those intelligent and passionate people working for something which made a difference to lives. I kept awake that night, waiting and wondering when I would be a part of it. My own life was in turmoil personally as well as professionally when I joined CARE. I was not sure whether the change of organization gave me that high feeling or was it something else?

By joining CARE, my college days came back to me! I would sit with awe as our Technical Director would speak. I would put up as many questions before him without even thinking for a split second (I actually bugged many people in that process; as incidentally my question would just pop up when we would be running late for Tea break!). I was like a child, who was starved of knowledge, of ideas; my job had done that to me. But here I was there, beginning to feel alive yet again!


It has been about 5 months today and I seem to have come a long way forward.  My family often tells me that I seem to be radiating positive energy lately. It is basically the game of the attitude on work; I have found so much of warmth and optimism in people here that makes me belong here; in this team and this project!  

Working on a project on Maternal and Child health was my dream since long! The issue closest to my heart is the health of women in our society especially would-be mothers. A sensitive thought as put in one of our meetings “Pregnancy itself is risk to life” clearly mentions the grave danger our women (especially in developing countries) face during child birth. One of the natural process become life threatening! Here we are trying to make a change and remove road blocks from all sides; awareness among the community members as well as quality of services in Public facilities. I always was intrigued with ‘doctor-like’ technical details of things; what better would be to heal lives? With continuous brushing up of our knowledge skills on technical side of IFHI project, today I feel empowered to speak to front line workers about some simple things which act nothing less than a doctor’s advice. Gaining and use of this knowledge on field has given me immense satisfaction of doing something worthwhile. Counseling of one mother successfully on field who was resistant to get a TT shot gave me a peaceful sleep at night!


When ‘perceived’ cold and disinterested front line workers listen to you with awe;  and start to share their experiences (apart from their usual grievances about incentives not paid) is when my heart swells up with pride and confidence. I can make them laugh too! Imagine a person like me, who used to be so very conscious of speaking in front of even two people. Today I can conduct trainings efficiently and ‘connect’ with people; my dream to teach is getting realized too! Earlier I always needed my lines ready in the form of a paper incase I go blank in front of an audience; but not anymore!

I had only read about soft skills of a manager in our HR class during college, but my job had not given me an opportunity to explore that. Here in CARE I seem to slowly understand the intricacies and challenges to work with a team; and to experience people report to you! Believe me, it gives you a high!

Most importantly I have witnessed in myself a sense of receptiveness to ambiguity of situations. I personally am a person who would be very uncomfortable in a situation which is unpredictable. Here ever since we have joined IFHI, the project seems to be evolving! It feels we are here to put our heads (and hearts) together to make something work. It gives me the feeling of being in a perfect learning organization (another concept we learned in HR class in college) which is giving me a golden opportunity to grow professionally as well as personally!

Today I maybe working in an organization, but tomorrow I would be leading one too. and the idea goes to; ideas for life!

A Start today!

Work you do does make a difference in life; and when it does to other’s life, its worth doing! Sometimes you like your work, but even better is when the work starts liking you. I am proud of myself today; but it has not been like this forever.

It seemed that my nose-ring (like a noose) kept me bound to the house, even after my husband left to work abroad. With two small kids dependent on me, it was criminal for me to sit quietly at home. I would spend most of my time in useless household work, which would still leave me with a feeling so empty and useless. I wanted to do something for my children, myself and my village.

It was then that I heard about the vacancy for the post of ASHAs in the block, and got selected and tagged as “Mridula Kumari” ASHA-Parsa (where I had come as a young bride sometime back). Even after the selection it took me a long time to start my work; for once there was nothing like any training organized for us. We were left to work and learn on our own. During our monthly ASHA meets it was more or less like a political party meeting, where everyone would be there but none would or rather could hear or understand anything, leave alone clear our doubts! There were many more like me in the group who wanted to do something concrete but felt helpless due to lack of knowledge or anyone to help us.

It was 1st Wednesday of the month that we were called for a meeting at Health Sub-Centre. It was informed by ANM didi (The only one we could turn towards help, but we saw her only once a month) that it would start at about 1 pm but since it was ‘too’ far from my home; I was double-minded and reached late at the venue. There I saw a team of young people who were trying to ‘enact’ how we ‘interact’ with pregnant women and mothers during our meetings with them. I got hooked! The team was from CARE and they were actually going to train us on how to ‘talk to beneficiaries’ coming right to the village.

It has been 4 months now after that first meeting and I have grown into a confident woman from that demure bride who could never even think about talking to her village people about ‘Family Planning’. Initially I had a lot of problems too. My work area included two extremes; one Musahar community (low castes) and Bhumihaar (upper caste) which made it very peculiar for me to work there. Although I didn’t believe much in caste system, the acceptance among the people there for me was very low. I decided to take up the challenge and started identifying the children who needed me the most.

As per growth monitoring charts, we decided to adopt few houses for ongoing counseling sessions. My visits to Musahar community were more than others since I realized that they needed my counseling more. This is where I met Laxmi and her 9 month old Rajesh. Rajesh when weighed came in ‘red line’. It was explained by the AWW that if he was not taken care of, he would be dangerously malnourished. This child as complained by his mother would not take anything other than her own milk. After getting the same reply from her in two visits; I asked her to bring whatever food was available at home. Reluctantly she brought out some cooked rice. I asked her to mix a little salt in it and started feeding the child. Lo and behold, the child started eating. Laxmi was ashamed of her laziness to feed her own child. Today the child is eating all kinds of vegetables, pulses and cereals and recovering well (as per last month’s weighing, he has come into yellow line category) and Laxmi is thankful to me.

Ravish, 4 month old was a feeble child who would never stop crying. The child caught my attention when his mother Archana had refused to get him immunized through ANM in-spite of repeated efforts. They were far too rich for that! I gathered all my courage to go to their house which was famous for its harsh language. After the initial hesitation, I was at ease with myself and started enquiring about breastfeeding practices from the mother. It was surprisingly scary that the child had been fed on bottle milk from 1st month itself. “We can afford bottle milk, that’s why we are feeding it!” is what I heard from the Mother-in-law. No wonder the child fell ill every 15 days and would never stop crying. Through the picture pamphlets I explained to the mother some ‘easy way’ of breastfeeding the child (I sensed the unwillingness to breastfeed was a reason here). Few signs of proper latching and suckling during breastfeeding were also taught to Archana. The whole concept of breastfeeding was changed from ‘free diet’ to ‘healthy diet’ for the richer class. This simple change in conversation style brought about a behaviour change and helped a mother to breastfeed her child again.

Today I feel the caste doesn’t define anyone’s development, only knowledge does! The continuous weekly follow up by CARE team has made us so efficient that we speak about anything related to mother and child confidently. Our visits to the field have made us gain respect in the communities. On one of the field visits when I heard “Apni ke hamni ke zindagi ke asal main Asha ho gayal baani” (you have actually become ASHA of our lives) from one of the villagers, my heart swelled with pride. I realize that there is still a very long way to go, but here I have made a start! This start can go a long way with, can it not?