Vinitha Venkatraman is a social entrepreneur and Co-Founder of VIVA Development Strategies who has a long standing relationship with Ambuja Cement Foundation. She joins us at Thrive, as a guest writer – sharing her insights and an outside perspective of some of the key facets of our work at ACF.
A poor network connection and a struggle to handle technology, couldn't have put a wet towel over the spirit of these women - women who are 'Sakhis' to fellow women in their community! While I was almost losing patience waiting for the network to agree with us, the ACF Sakhis were riding high - confidence in their body language, bright smiles on their faces and power in their voices, undeterred by 'what we city-folk make a hue and cry about'. Giving me a silent lesson on the long-forgotten virtue called patience, we begin…
Having visited Chandrapur for a project with the Ambuja Cement Foundation, I wasn't new to the organization's work in healthcare. With that background, I decided to dig deeper to understand what keeps these women motivated, and why they do what they do?
For those of you who are new to ACF's work in health, let me tell you a little about it from the perspective of these women. Their day starts with household visits to newlyweds, pregnant and lactating women, accompanying pregnant women who are at risk to the hospital and visits to new-borns to identify any risk that could be a concern. Given that some of these villages don't have an ASHA, the role of these Sakhis become paramount in not just creating awareness about health and nutrition for the mother and baby but also going all the way in linking them up to services – connecting them to hospitals, mobilization on village health and nutrition day (VHND) and supporting for maternal benefit schemes so they receive adequate and timely health and financial support.
I asked Pushpa Tai, one of the Sakhi’s on what keeps her motivated, and she says ‘For me, it is all about the pregnant woman. We take away her worries and bring happiness to her family. We make a difference. That helps us get a good night’s sleep and we are motivated each morning to go back and do the same – over and over again’.
This motivation leads to ensuring that the ACF Sakhis reach every village and visit the beneficiary’s house for routine check-up of neonatal infants on key parameters and link them to hospitals in time.
Given the challenges in attaining the maternal benefit schemes, Sakhi’s play a significant role in ensuring appropriate connection to these services and the required documentation for financial support to these women.
I was moved when I heard Poornima Tai’s reason for her motivation. She says, “When I visit a tribal area which also has a mixed group of migrants, they barely understand our local language and know nothing about health – and when I finally talk to them about the health benefits and they understand and follow what I tell them, I feel so satisfied!”
Prevention of illness and having good health, as many of us will know, is an effect of our behaviours and practices. Involving the families given their influence on the mother’s practice and behaviour is an absolute must. The Sakhis consider it their responsibility to educate families - especially the husband - on the mother's post-natal care, exclusive breastfeeding and the support she needs to be given.
For Laxmi Tai Patrakar, her joy comes from working with Adolescent girls. She proudly narrates how she gives out prevention related information to adolescent girls with a single motto – Adolescent girls must not suffer from Anaemia. ACF focusses on working with Adolescent girls on improving health outcomes, leading them to be healthy mothers in the future.
A true professional is one who is willing to take responsibilities and perform to the best of their capabilities. While these Sakhis started off working in the area of ‘Maternal Neonatal and Child Health’, over the years they also had to take on the task of arresting the rising ‘Non-Communicable Diseases’ among communities. When the Sakhi's were told a few years ago, that they will also need to support the households for prevention and treatment of NCDs, they immediately agreed. Sakhis reach out to each household for risk assessment and awareness generation.
When I asked Meenakshi Tai, what is her biggest challenge when she works with people, she says “Working in NCDs is a challenge as people are reluctant to get tested and are afraid that they will have to be on lifelong medication and will have dietary restrictions if diagnosed. When we organise IEC programs and counselling sessions and tell them about the importance of screening and a healthy diet and when they listen to us it makes us very happy. With our efforts we see that new patients are reducing”. This reflects the untiring work by the ACF guided Sakhis on prevention of NCDs through a focus on life style modifications.
Indira Tai speaks about the ‘continuum of care’. She says, “Our biggest aim is to ensure regular follow up for medication if someone is recently diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension. We want to ensure that any further complications are avoided. This behaviour change is challenging but after a lot of convincing, when we see them on regular medication and they continue to remain healthy, we feel we have done a good job”
In my mind, a strong grassroot impact organisation is one that is responsive to the current pressing needs of the community. We are all familiar on the effect of COVID on our lives and health. NCD patients were at the highest risk given co-morbidities and old age. When asked how they managed in the midst of Covid, Shaku Tai smiles to reply “ACF Sakhis are always responsive to community needs. While screening and medicines were a challenge with the health facilities, we Sakhis went all out to provide the required support to the patients”
Shaku Tai was the last to speak among the 6 Sakhis I interacted with. She gave a conclusive sign towards the end of our interaction and said “Their smile is our joy!” bringing a smile to my face.
The infectious spirit and contagious smiles I witnessed helped me catch their vibe and the conversation with these remarkable women is one that will stay with me for a long time. Sakhi, which means ‘a friend’, is a testimony to the role these women play in the lives of fellow women and other villagers in their community, a true reflection of women empowerment, don't you think?
The author of this article is the co-founder of VIVA Development Strategies, a consulting practice in the development sector that provides turnkey solutions in the area of social responsibility and development for both corporates and international development agencies. A social entrepreneur and passionate writer, she can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or https://in.linkedin.com/in/vinitha-venkatraman-33642313