India

In India, women-led self-help groups empower women and improve health

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© UNICEF India/2012/Vishwanathan
Kamalaben Chowdhry discusses health and hygiene at her women-led self-help group Karan Zaveri Village, Gujarat, India.

By Idhries Ahmad

VALSAD, Gujarat, 16 July 2012 – Twenty-two-year-old Sharuben Kurkutiya feared her family would not be able to save the money needed to have her first child delivered at the local hospital in her remote village of Ozharaifaliya in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Ms. Kurkutiya contemplated giving birth at home, even knowing she would be putting her life, and that of her child, at risk. But the local Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker, Pushpa Ben Basra, persuaded her to deliver at the hospital, under the supervision of a medical practitioner.

“From experience, I know the dangers of giving birth at home and repeatedly counselled Sharuben to deliver the baby in the hospital. I told her about Janani Surakha Yojna scheme under which women are given a cash incentive by the government for delivery and post-delivery care," Ms. Basra said.

"She finally agreed. As far as the unforeseen expenses were concerned, they were taken up by our self -help group,”

Women-led self-help groups

Ms. Basra is a member of the self-help group of the Vasudhara Dairy Cooperatives. She and other members of the self-help group visit surrounding villages in Valsad District to educate adolescent girls, pregnant women and young mothers about life-saving health, hygiene and feeding practices.

With a population of 60 million people, Gujarat has a vibrant economy and reports per capita income that is higher than India’s national average. However, the social development indicators have not kept pace with economic development in the state. 

Yet almost every other child in Gujarat under the age of five is undernourished and three out of four are anaemic. Infant and maternal mortality rates have declined very slowly in the last decade, in part due to a lack of community empowerment and awareness about safe health, hygiene and child feeding practices.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF India/2012/Vishwanathan
Pushpa Ben Basra, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), drives a tractor in Karan Zaveri Village, Gujarat, India. She is a member of a women-led self-help group, part of the Vasudhara Diary Cooperatives.

In an effort to empower communities and improve knowledge among women, UNICEF partnered with Vasudhara Diary Cooperative in 2005 to raise awareness about these practices among women in hundreds of villages in Valsad. The Cooperative has a network of hundreds of women-led self-help groups.

“The strength of this partnership lies in the huge community networks of the cooperative. A majority of these self-help group members or volunteers are from the tribal community and have deep understanding of the traditional practices, behaviours and attitudes and also share a great rapport with the community members and leaders,” said Dr. Prakash Gurnani, Chief of the UNICEF Gujarat State Office.

“Since, culturally, dairy farming is one of the main occupations in rural Gujarat, and each village has at least one dairy cooperative, this model has the potential for further scale-up and replicability across the state,” Dr. Gurnani explained.

Empowering women

Through the programme, village volunteers – mostly women – receive training on interpersonal communication skills. They are also trained to promote five specific behaviours: exclusive breastfeeding; hand-washing with soap; education of girls; prevention of HIV/AIDS; and use of iodised salt to prevent iodine deficiency.

Volunteers organize home visits and group meetings, promoting these behaviours through posters, leaflets, booklets, songs, films and other communication materials.

Kamlaben Chaudhury is one such volunteer. “Initially there were challenges in our tribal village. Women followed certain practices like giving a new-born a spoon of honey immediately after birth, not exclusively breastfeeding their babies, or advising mother and child to stay at home for the first month,” she said. “Now things have changed. Our village has adopted institutional delivery, mothers exclusive breastfeed babies, and they regularly visit anganwadi [early childhood care] centres for regular check-ups and treatment.”

Volunteers have also been inspired and empowered by their community work – many have gone on to become elected local representatives known as sarpanches or members of the local governing body known as block panchayat.

Sureshbai, another volunteer, credits the women themselves for improving the health of the community. “This initiative was successful since the interventions were led by women, and these women members have a special connect with the other women in the community. If you don’t involve women and try to replicate this with other diary cooperatives, it might not be possible to show similar results. Men alone cannot bring this difference,” she said.

With reporting from Moumita Dastidar

 


 

 

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