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Women Led Self Help Groups Harbingers of Change in Tribal Valsad

Pushpa Ben Basra, an Accredited Social Health Activist and member of self-help group is helping tribal women and children in the tribal women and children in the remote village of Ozharaifaliya in Kaprada block in Gujarat to live healthier lives.

By Idhries Ahmad

VALSAD, Gujarat, 26 June 2012 –
Twenty-two-year old, Sharuben Kurkutiya was worried that her family was not able to save money needed for the delivery of her first child at local hospital in her remote village of Ozharaifaliya in Kaprada block in western Indian state of Gujarat.

Sharuben contemplated giving birth to her child at home, aware that she was putting her own life as well as that of her child at grave risk of infections and even death. However, the local 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 counseled Sharuben to deliver the baby in the hospital. I told her about Janani Surakha Yojna scheme under which women are given cash incentive by the government for delivery and post-delivery care," says Pusha Ben, dressed in a flowing green sari.

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

Thirty-two-year old, Pushpa Ben Basra, apart from an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) is a member of self-help group of Vasudhara Dairy Cooperatives. She and other members of the Cooperative's self-help groups visit villages in Kaprada block in Valsad district and educate adolescent girls, pregnant women and young mothers about safe health, hygiene and feeding practices. Valsad district is one of the most under-developed and predominantly tribal district in south Gujarat
With a population of 60 million people, Gujarat has a vibrant economy and reports per capita income which is higher than India’s national average. However, the social development indicators have not kept pace with economic development in the state. 

Almost every second child in Gujarat under the age of five is undernourished and three out of four are anaemic. Infant and maternal mortality rates have reduced very slowly in the last decade. Such issues can be attributed, in part, to a lack of community empowerment and awareness and knowledge about safe health, hygiene and child feeding practices.

In an effort to empower the community and improve knowledge among women about the safe health, hygiene and feeding practices, UNICEF partnered with Vasudhara Diary Cooperative in 2005 to help ensure women in 235 villages in Valsad follow safe health and nutrition practices and their children get better start to their lives.
Vasudhara Dairy Cooperatives with over 50 per cent of women representation has a network of 693 women led self-help groups and more than 13000 members from almost all villages of Dharampur and Kaprada blocks in Valsad. 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.

“The strength of this partnership lies in the huge community networks of the cooperative. 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,” says Dr Prakash Gurnani, Chief, UNICEF Gujarat State Office.

At the commencement of the programme in 2005, 700 village volunteers, mostly women, were given training that focussed on developing their interpersonal communication skills. They were also trained in five specific behaviours: exclusive breastfeeding; hand washing with soap; education of girls; prevention of HIV/AIDS; and use of iodised salt.

Till date, close to 700 trained volunteers through household visits or regular group meetings at Village Information Centres disseminate message related to key behavior change through specially developed posters, leaflets, booklets, songs, films and other communication materials.

Thirty-six year- old, Kamlaben Chaudhury, is one such volunteer from Karanjaveri village in Dharmapur block in Valsad district and has been associated with Vasadhara cooperative since 2008. She is now well versed and talks with conviction about institutional delivery, colostrum feeding, exclusive breast feeding, hand-washing and anaemia prevention.

“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 breast feeding their babies or advising mother and child to stay at home for first month” says Kamlaben as she checks the immunization chart of the baby.

 ‘Now things have changed. Our village has adopted institutional delivery, mother’s exclusive breastfeed babies and they do regularly visit anganwadi centres (early childhood care centres) for regular check-ups and treatment,” adds Kamlaben.

Sureshbai, who has been associated with Vasadhara Cooperative from 1996, credits active involvement of women- led self-help groups for improving awareness about key health behaviours.

“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,” says Sureshbhai.

In recognition of their community work, many of the self-help group members have graduated to become sarpanches (elected local representatives) or block panchayat [local governance body] members.

“The partnership has, over the years, emerged as a successful model for community mobilization and has brought about significant behavior changes at the community level. 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 which would help us enhance the reach of such behavior change communication initiatives,” states Dr Gurnani

Back in Ozharaifaliya village, Pushpa Ben is respected among women not only for her community work but also for her courage to learn farming against all odds. She has raised her two sons single-handedly.

“It warms my heart and brings a smile to my face to see both Sharuben and her baby doing well,” gleams Pushpa.

“I did not complete my schooling and feel much less educated compared to other women in my family and neighbourhood. But I feel very proud because of the work I do which makes difference to lives of women and children in our village. My job helps me to reach out to people and help them,’ says Pushpa as she leaves and pushes the ignition of her own tractor.

With inputs from Moumita Dastidar



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