Monday, July 13, 2015 - 05:30
  The sarpanch of Dibhna village in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district is a class-11 graduate. She is not expected to know public policy or good governance, and had little experience in administering a village. But she has been able to achieve which not many other bureaucrats, multi-crore welfare schemes, promise-making politicians or star activists have been able to do in a "Naxal-infested" area at the heart of the "dangerous" district. About a decade ago, life was different for Sangita Lonbale and other women in Dibhna. Pregnancy was a traumatic and often a fatal experience. Women barely made through without emerging weak, unhealthy or dead. The culture of ignoring modern medicine and sticking to deadly traditions was all pervasive. But now, women understand health issues better, have access to medical care and stand up against unhealthy traditional practices. "Only healthy kids will give a healthy future ahead," says Sangita, who isn’t just the sarpanch of the village but also a Community Health Worker (CHW) in an NGO.   Sangita Lonbale   In 2000, when Sangita was at the brink of her schooling years, she got married to a man from within the Marhad community. By 2004, she had two children, a boy and a girl. Life wasn’t easy in the poor village. Receiving little help from her husband, she had to work hard under the sun to earn enough money to feed her family and fund her kids’ education. Sangita’s own experience with pregnancy spurred her to take the problems head on and campaign for better health conditions in the village. A decade ago, several unhealthy practices and superstitions were strongly embedded in the villages. "During my first pregnancy, my mother-in-law was completely against allopathic medicines. She believed that these medicines might lead to C-section operations and she also stopped me from having a complete diet due the age old belief said that if the mother consumes a full meal, the baby’s head might swell, resulting in a hard labour," she says. During her first delivery Sangita went unconscious due to weakness and had to be hospitalised for two days, despite a normal delivery. This was a wakeup call for Sangita and her family and she had learnt her lessons. During her second pregnancy, she took complete care of herself. She went for regular check-ups and also made sure that she had a healthy diet. Eventually her second delivery was a smoother one and she delivered a healthy baby boy. Her personal experience also proved to be a lesson for other women in the village who had faced similar problems. It wasn’t just overlooking healthy diets, certain traditions among the community also affected the health of mothers and infants, especially among the tribals. One of the more pervasive traditions was that of the kurma. Immediately after the delivery, the mother is shifted to a kurma, a small temporary arrangement where all women are left to take care of themselves while menstruating. Other women are not allowed to enter the kurma as they consider it unholy and impure. "Earlier these huts were in a very bad condition and there have been incidents of deaths due to snake bites. Though not entirely, we have been able to provide basic facilities to ladies living inside the kurmas, like electricity, raised boundary walls and better medical care," says Sangita.   A villager stands with her child inside a kurma   Some of the other practices were extremely unhygienic and have proven fatal for infants. "According to our traditions, the umbilical cord of the baby was buried in the ground, and the mother had to stay in the kurma till the umbilical cord fell. To make sure that the cord falls quick, women would apply limestone, failing to understand the side effects of applying it," she says. Sangita’s decision to work as a health worker came after she could not find help for her ailing daughter back a few years ago and had to rush to Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH), the NGO where she works today. “Things changed when my daughter suffered from diarrhea and I had to rush to SEARCH. I experienced their services and care. Moreover I personally felt that they had the urge to do something for us and that we should also join them,” says Sangita. After a few days she met a male health worker in her village and inquired about joining the NGO. Those wanting to join had to undergo a basic test which Sangita passed. "A woman from our village and I had scored equal marks but because I had undergone the family planning operation, the organisation chose me,” adds Sangita. The NGO encouraged adopting contraceptive methods. Soon after, she was trained in various post-pregnancy procedures like measuring the baby’s weight, blood pressure and maintaining check-up dates. “Above all this, I experienced an inner change within myself which has helped me come a long way,” she says, adding that with this she also got the job she really wanted, one which offered a little more income and also helped her solve problems for her village. Spreading awareness about health was not an easy task, but with the help of local health workers the job got easier. She belonged to the same village so communication was much easier and myths could be cleared from the root. Sometimes health workers faced opposition from their own villagers when they challenged traditions and they were seen as a threat to the community. But it takes time and patience, and health workers have been able to change the mindset of the community over the years.     A tribal woman in Gadchiroli   Dibhna and the nearby villages in Gadchiroli had to struggle with infant mortality and high tobacco consumption issues earlier. Unhygienic conditions were one of the prime reasons for infant mortality. Sangita and CHWs like her had to walk that extra mile to create awareness about cleanliness during pregnancy and postpartum. The rampant use of tobacco was also a problem. The consumption of tobacco was more among the tribal communities than the rural, even among the women in the community. Mothers did not hesitate to feed their two-year-old crying kid with raw tobacco or processed products to help them sleep fast. Sangita and her colleagues are trying different ways to control the situation. "For many tobacco is way to pass time and so we have been giving them alternate options like fennel seeds," says Sangita. This has not completely changed the situation, but Sangita and her co-workers are determined that they can get a complete ban on tobacco. In her journey, Sangita’s husband was also a vital partner. "My husband always stood beside me and never doubted my intentions. There have been critical cases when I had to stay with the mother and the baby for days and nights but I never hesitated in staying behind because my husband was always there for me. Many a times, I had to even ask for a stranger to accompany me, this was only possible because my husband trusted me completely," says Sangita with a smile. What did help Sangita and other health workers is that the tribal Gonds who live in the nearby villages, have a culture of gender-equality. Female foeticide was not a major problem and the girl child was not looked-down on. Men are open to vasectomies. "In the entire colony where I live, I am the only one who had undergone a tubectomy, and that too only because my husband suffered from malaria those days and doctors advised me to go for the operation," says Sangita. All photographs by Manasi Deshpande  
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