Located at a distance of mere three kilometers from the clamorous semi-urban tehsil of Harda called Rehatgaon, entering the village Chhirpura fills you up with an air of peace and quiet.
Despite caste inequalities that we witness on our walk around the village, Changeloomers Sulochana (Anchor) and Vinita (co-anchor) are working hard to ensure that all women and girls in village of Chhirpura can access good health services.
Their initiative, “Samajhdaar Sakhi” which translates into “sensible friend (girl)” aims to raise awareness on children’s and adolescents’ health issues and rights through workshops, street plays, community meetings, etcetera. “We named it so because a smart woman is someone who gives priority to her health and provides proper nutrition to her children. We want every woman to be like that.”
And for that, Sulochana and Vinita are making undying efforts to reach out to the underprivileged tribal communities of three villages: (their own village Chhirpura, and two other forest villages called Dhanpada and Khatmakheda) who are at the lowest of economic strata.
And why not? Vinita herself comes from a Gond family and she admits that tribal women and girls are not able to receive proper health services and are the least educated lot among the others. “I am illiterate and so are many other tribal girls in the village. We struggle to get girls to become a part of our group. They do not want to come out of their shell. They just want to live in their small world and go to work as labourers daily as they fear a lot”, says Vinita.
However, their efforts have resulted in some positive results. The Changeloomers strategized their meetings to meet the girls at night during some festival so that they enjoy with them and also create a space to talk to them. Some of these adolescent girls accompanied them to Handiya and performed a play on immunization. “Recently, we got eleven girls vaccinated for Tetanus in Khatmakheda. The ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwifery) told me about it and we thought of engaging our group through it.”
Sulochana and Vinita seek information on many health issues related to women, girls and children from different people. “I faced struggle in associating women with us initially because they think that people only come and impart us knowledge without actually helping us get it. Hence, I started taking full information about various services and schemes from people who know more or my reading them through books. Like during the Measles Rubella (MR) campaign, I talked to a doctor about the right symptoms and about BMI.”
These young women started their project with the aim of ensuring safe and complete vaccination to all children and women (especially the self-help group women with whom Sulochana was already working with) as many cultural taboos around vaccination prevent them from getting immunized. However, various national campaigns child nutrition, breastfeeding, child rights week, campaign on MR vaccine etc. widened their perspective and provided them with a holistic lens towards child rights and women’s reproductive health rights.
They hold regular sessions with 150 women on health and nutrition from the three villages who are associated with self-help groups. Apart from that they hold regular meetings with anganwadi worker and ANM. “The change is 40-45 women visit Anganwadi daily as compared to 8-10 women before and they are more aware about different services provided by it”, claims Sulochana.
“I connect more deeply with the issues on health and gender now. Before, money was the biggest motivation and I didn’t think much about it”, confesses the 20-year old NSS and NYK volunteer.
A final year graduation student, she confesses that in spite of her extrovert and confident attitude, she was scared of raising questions in her class or in front of powerful people, “During the first workshop of the programme, I met Siyag Ji who came to take a session on Constitution and he was so nice to me that the night before his session, I actually ended up talking to him for two hours. Somehow, that helped me in raising questions during his session and I realized I can do it with others too.” She goes on to share that she has learnt a lot in this one-year: her presentation, and facilitation skills have improved; and she has gained confidence to raise her voice anytime someone comments on her in public place, or even if she sees her male friends do it with other girls.
On the other hand, Vinita, acknowledges that it is her first exposure to the outside world and it has helped her in recognizing her interest in working with children and young girls on issues of their health and freedom. She shares “I learnt a lot about gender at the workshops and I come and tell my brother about it and I have seen his perspective change towards me. I talk to girls about the need to step out of their comfort zones and I also try to initiate conversation around menstruation.”
Both of these young women with contrasting personalities continue to stand for each other in their village and raise voice against those who misinterpret their freedom. “Now, some of them who read about our work in news do not speak wrong things about my character, especially in front of me. Vinita’s interactions with them have also been extremely fruitful in ensuring people’s trust for my work”, says Sulochana, whose freedom raised eyebrows of many villagers.