Written by Anshla Benny
A week into working for ARMMAN I was assigned to go to the field along with my fellow project officer to make a short film on the lives of the Arogya sakhis. While packing my bags, I thought to myself, “How do I get these women to feel comfortable enough to share their stories and experiences on camera?”
Our Arogya Sakhis are women chosen by the field supervisors in the three districts based on certain criteria i.e she should be educated till 8th class or above and that she should be a well known in the village. These women were convinced to join the programme and were later given adequate training and then they started their work as Arogya Sakhis who provided home based antenatal and infancy care for the enrolled beneficiaries of the village.
Being a student of women studies’, I realized that this project, however good it sounds on paper, must have been very challenging to implement on the field due to way gender and sexuality plays out in the real world. Every single day, I myself have to wade through a labyrinth of social rules and diktats to ascertain my right to dress, talk and move around the way I choose to and yet I am forced to make small compromises here and there. However these overriding patriarchal forces multiply in a rural setting where gender, caste and religion combine its forces to put greater controls on women and bind them to the confines of their homes. It is therefore noteworthy that the women have overcome all the obstructions in their way and have covered this difficult journey from being a housewife to an Arogya sakhi.
The day of the shoot, the arogya sakhis were excited about being interviewed and wore bright new sarees and even dressed their hair with flowers. They were waiting like excited schoolgirls for their turn in front of the camera. They spoke of their journey in great detail and these were some of the recurrent themes that emerged from their stories.
They recounted their journey from the beginning when the field supervisor had come looking for them to their homes. Most of the women had the same problem that their family members did not allow them to go out and work. The work of an Arogya Sakhi involved a lot of travel and the families had absolute control over the women’s mobility. Besides even if the women wanted to work they did not have the confidence to go against their husband and their in laws. Roshantai had a small baby to take care of and it took a lot of persistence on the part of the field supervisors to win over the family and get her to attend the training to become an arogya sakhi.
After almost two years the scenario is completely different, the family of the arogya sakhis treat the field supervisors like extended family. Mobility was a new concept for the arogya sakhis, Rekhatai exclaims how she was very afraid to travel alone and always had to be escorted everywhere. Manishatai recounts how the first time she came to Solpaur for training, she did not know the address and she had so many questions and apprehensions about what was going to happen. She was not sure if she could trust the field supervisors completely as well. Searching for the office was also an arduous task for all the women.
Use of Technology-
Manishatai ironically states that she did not even have a mobile phone at that time and had to use a coin box (phone booth) to contact the field supervisor. The women were given mobile phones as this is an mhealth project and they were even given adequate training to use it. Rekhatai candidly confessed that she used to struggle with using the mobile phone in the beginning. She felt embarrassed to keep asking for help and thus experimented a lot with it. Now the arogyasakhis are so well versed with the mobile phones that they have passwords and security codes for each of their phone applications. This technological proficiency itself has given them a lot of confidence and now they can explore newer possibilities with their phone.
The women were very apprehensive about the training. Sridevitai talks about how she was very scared at first to poke a needle and draw blood, even using the BP machine and all was a cumbersome task and the women did not have the confidence to conduct these tests. The training included gynecological and pediatric modules. However during the course of the training they practiced on each other and also on their family members and slowly and steadily they became well versed with the testing procedure. Practicing on their family members had an added advantage. The family members realized that the women have actually acquired a very important skill and started respecting them more. Also the women started monitoring the health of their family members more closely and brought about a lot of lifestyle changes to make herself and her family healthier.
Trust building and Increased Presence-
The next big challenge that the arogya sakhis faced was when they set out to enroll beneficiaries. They had to convince the beneficiaries and their families that they were skilled enough to take the tests and the information that they would be providing was very helpful. The family members of the beneficiaries were very resistant initially. Saraswatitai recounts how a beneficiary refused to believe that the Arogya Sakhi training was enough to equip her to take diagnostic tests when people who are much more educated than her cannot perform these tests.
However after much cajoling the arogya sakhis gained the trust of the beneficiary and for that they had to keep going to their houses, meet the family members often. This increased their presence in the community and through word of mouth beneficiaries were more open towards enrolling themselves. Another problem that they faced initially was that the family members of the beneficiary were resistant to the information shown in the animation. The elders in the family believed that they did not need any information on how to raise their children, however the Arogyasakhis had to patiently explain to the elders that some of the myths and superstitions that they believed in and practiced did more harm to the child than good. The animations and voice calls explained everything in detail and over that when the Arogya sakhis conducted discussions it struck a chord with the elders as well and they soon realized how helpful the visits of the Arogyasakhi were.
Becoming Health entrepreneurs-
The Arogya sakhis thus learnt to travel freely, use technology and also communicate with people of the village and build a rapport. Now they have taken their work forward and are becoming entrepreneurs in their own respect. The Arogya Sakhis now conduct tests of other people in the villages as well and charge a little money for it. They also have elaborate plans of taking this forward by starting laboratories in the village and doing higher courses so that they will be able to do more tests.
A New Identity-
The Arogya sakhis are recognized as health workers in the village and treated with a lot of respect. Meenakshi tai blushes while she says that they get the status and respect given to doctors and these hard working women whose domestic work was otherwise going invisible and was unvalued now have a new found stature in the community.
Empowerment is not just a word, it is a journey; and this is very visible in the case of the Arogya Sakhis. From being the docile, shy women who needed permission from their husband and in laws to even come out of their homes to becoming an Arogya Sakhi, and convincing pregnant women to enroll as beneficiaries in the project; the Arogya sakhis have come a long way. The same women who used to doubt themselves are now finding avenues to broaden the scope of their work on their own. The women who used to be scared of going around without an escort, now roam around the streets being greeted as Arogya sakhis by the entire village.
As I sat there beside the camera guy worrying in my mind if the video feed was getting too long because the Arogya sakhis had so much to say, I realized that nothing could be a bigger testament to the self confidence they have gained throughout this journey than the eloquence with which the women spoke in front of the camera, with a smile on their faces all the while as they recounted their amazing journey from a Housewife to an Arogyasakhi…