by Meera Satpathy
More than two decades ago I had a chance conversation with a neighbour’s house-help who I happened to meet on my evening walk. She was barely 17 years old and heavily pregnant. She looked pale and underweight. Later I regretted not asking her if she needed any help or support especially with her diet, nutrition and any other medical assistance. Few weeks later I heard that she died due to childbirth related complications. A young life snuffed out. What really hurt was the fact that she could have been saved. It did not require earth shattering investment or complex medical interventions to save her and countless other women like her who still continue to die in childbirth.
This was the trigger for me to quit the advertising industry where I had a promising future and set up an NGO that could be dedicated to the maternal and child health of women in disadvantaged settings. Indeed, this was a vast field with much to do. Sukarya was born and along with it a team of committed individuals, donors, partners and associates, not just in India but also overseas (with an active US chapter) came together to make a difference.
As of 2020 we have reached out to more than 5 million women and children in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan where we have a strong presence. Providing linkages to health care services, counselling on sexual and reproductive health, holding medical camps, providing door-to-door services and trainings to community volunteers, we have been able to raise the bar with respect to health care and quality of life in these settings. We have always had a steady stream of donors, enough to help us stay invested in the communities that came to look upon us as being one of them.
However, the disruption of COVID-19 has brought with it immeasurable grief and loss. The first casualty was our inability to physically visit the slum colonies like we used to. However, our volunteers and programme managers stayed connected with community members through phone calls, SMS, whatsapp groups and physical visits when possible, but the comfort and reassurance that comes with a face-to-face meeting is something that is being sorely missed.
Many women are experiencing domestic abuse with drunken husbands who have lost their jobs and demand more money from them. They have had to contend with hunger as they struggled to keep their kitchen fires burning. Yes, several NGOs including Sukarya have opened food banks, donated food and sanitation kits and held testing camps, but given the massive need, there is always scope to do a lot more.
As we get deeper into the pandemic, our biggest fear is that there will be a reversal of many gains made by us and other NGOs in the field. A lot of the good work done in terms of building access to health care, inculcating health seeking behaviours, be it in the area of nutrition, hygiene, sanitation or institutionalisation of deliveries and making sure pregnant women get all the prenatal and postnatal care they need, COVID-19 will have long-term impact.
We are seeing many pregnant women unable to access timely advice from doctors, leading to complications and delays. Many of the women and families who we advocated with to register for institutional delivery are now opting for home delivery since they are scared of going to hospitals and contracting COVID. Also, ambulances are not readily available, helplines are not being answered and medical personnel are extremely stretched. Clearly, many of the gains made by us stand to get reversed. Immunization schedules of newborns are going awry with focus entirely on COVID-19. Even if immunization camps are held they are not being announced as aggressively. This is leading to many vaccination shots getting missed. Lactating mothers are not getting adequate diet and rest. Newborn and infant care that should be part of every household where there has been a delivery is suffering with the family coping to barely survive.
With the government mandate to spend at least 2 percent of their profits every year on corporate social responsibility (CSR) Sukarya provides a robust platform for CSR opportunities with a proven track record for any business or corporation, be it ensuring better maternal child health & nutrition through rural health action program, or non-formal education for slum children or adolescent girls’ empowerment through the gender equality program or ensuring better maternal child health & nutrition through rural health action program, or even economic empowerment of rural women through self help groups.
With COVID related deaths and casualties rising, medical bills being unpaid, families in debt, number of orphans increasing and there being no clear plan for rehabilitation, one can well imagine how much work is needed to bring any semblance of normalcy in the lives of these communities. This Mother’s Day, we are running a campaign to draw attention to the warrior spirit in these women who despite the most challenging circumstances never say die. Let us continue to give them hope and promise of a better post COVID world. Join us and support us so that we can step up our reach and interventions. Let us do our bit to address preventable maternal, newborn and child mortality and morbidity especially in the wake of COVID-19.