New Delhi | Pearl Tiwari: Rural women are key agents for development, and empowering them has proven time and again, transformative not only for the well-being of individuals and families, but for the overall development of rural communities.

Yet in India, there remains a large, latent potential in the country’s women – particularly in rural areas, where many women are restricted to life at home, saddled by the burden of domestic and childrearing duties.

However, many communities are finding ways to tap this latent potential to enable ‘last mile reach’ in remote, rural communities for various community services – in particular, healthcare.

Whilst the nationwide ASHA worker model has been rolled out, many gaps and issues in its implementation have seen other civil society organisations train and engage local women as ‘Sakhis’ to deliver much needed support in areas such as Maternal and Child Health, non-communicable disease and in recent times, act as frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the right training and support, rural women can play a crucial role in the health and development of their communities. As local women in their communities, they have the necessary ‘local knowledge’, trust and relationships in communities to penetrate quickly and deliver.

There are many models where civil society organisations have successfully trained local women to deliver Maternal & Child Healthcare services and take it one step further to provide education for women on child growth and development up to two years of age - covering issues such as early and exclusive breast feeding, lactation, complementary feeding, nutrition and immunisation. Additionally, they can play a wider role educating high risk population in communities on the importance of lifestyle and behaviour modification to tackle non communicable disease such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

As pillars of the community, once empowered, Sakhis can tackle other local problems such as the use of tobacco and sanitation in the community. There are many strong stories from the regions like Kodinar, Gujarat, and Chandrapur, Maharashtra, where women leaders have emerged at the forefront driving community campaigns to curb the sale of illicit liquor, create ‘Tobacco Free Villages’ and achieve ‘100% toilet coverage’ in their community.

With deep ties to the community, Sakhi’s are also effective in targeting key populations in the community, such as adolescents, to educate them on issues such as sexual and reproductive health. With the right tools and training, they have effectively been educating adolescents by conducting sessions in schools and communities on issues such as Anaemia awareness and Iron Folic Acid supplementation menstrual hygiene management, and substance abuse.

Across the world, educating and empowering women has proven time and again to be the catalyst for rapid socio-economic growth, with health being a key driver at the core of communities. India’s rural women provide a key opportunity for civil society organisations to tackle the issues of rural health.

(Disclaimer: This article is written by Ms Pearl Tiwari, CEO, Ambuja Cement Foundation)

Posted By: Aalok Sensharma