Women health workers talk about breaking boundaries at front lines

Kalpana Vishwakarma was 14 when her father arranged her marriage. Fortunately, that didn’t prove to be an impediment to her education. However, when she became a mother at the age of 17, she came across the strange local tradition of not breastfeeding the newborn for a week.

Now 20 years down the line, Kalpana has become an Anganwadi worker and an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), devoting her life to spreading health awareness among rural populations.

“Bundelkhand has a strange tradition, wherein colostrum (first milk of the mother) is offered to a stone deity. Despite being an area with high child mortality rate, people were ignorant about the importance of colostrum, which is also the first immunisation for the child,” said Kalpana.

She was speaking on the occasion of 70th anniversary of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) inception on Tuesday. UNICEF was felicitating frontline health workers who work towards a better and healthy society despite social and economical constraints.

Even after continuous efforts for several years, Kalpana could not convince people about the importance of colostrum for a child. “I was disappointed by people’s reaction. Then I used their poverty to bring about the change. I asserted how breastfeeding helped save money spent on buying milk from the market and on gas to boil that milk,” she said.

“I once had the audience in splits while trying to highlight the power of mother’s milk during a panchayat session. I recited the famous Hindi movie dialogue, ‘Agar maa ka doodh piya hai toh saamne aa (come forward, if you have had your mother’s milk). For a Bollywood-obsessed nation, this was a winner,” Kalpana added. Her support group now provides counselling on nutritious food for pregnant and lactating mothers in rural areas of Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

On the occasion, another health activist Najma Nikhat also shared the challenges she faced while doing her work. She was emlpoyed as the Community Mobilisation Coordinator in western UP and her job entailed administering polio drops to children under five years of age.

“The job seemed pretty easy. But when I was transferred to Shaheed Nagar in Ghaziabad, I faced many problems. Most residents were illiterate and would abuse the workers. It was difficult to spread awareness regarding polio vaccination. It took me years to gain their trust. The area has now been declared polio-free,” she said.

Najma now works with the Social Mobilisation Network (SMNet), a UNICEF initiative to ensure that all children in its designated areas are vaccinated for polio.

Appreciating these frontline workers, UNICEF representative in India, Louis Georges Arsenault, said: “These women are working with great passion for a better society. It takes a lot of dedication and courage to spread awareness as it is difficult to break the conservative approach and stereotypes.”

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