“Four walls can’t stop women from being astounding and many of them have already made their mark against the grain,” says Pravasini Batakar, a 33-year-old from Odisha’s Kandhamal district.
In a rare display of commitment to improve the tribal population’s access to health services in remote areas, she is helping underprivileged communities in Tumudibandha block get access to basic healthcare facilities.
Tribes in Kandhamal mostly live in hilly terrain and forested areas where they endure poor infrastructure with no roads and telephone connectivity. This often becomes a barrier to accessing healthcare. Pravasini knew that working in these areas would be tough for her. Because transportation services in these areas are squat and tribal communities often follow rigid socio-cultural norms and traditional healing practices. But, she wasn’t concerned about that and extended her services keeping in mind those in need.
Tribal and other marginalised communities cannot thrive without good health and the onset of the pandemic has further pushed them to the fringes.
So, Pravasini’s role is now more significant than ever before.
She says, “Undernutrition is the core of all health problems for them and the inequality of access to health facilities also adds to a higher maternal and child mortality rate.”
“So, ever since I joined, I vowed to help these communities so that they get access to basic healthcare service at their doorstep,” Pravasini adds.
In 2018, Pravasini worked as a ‘Jansathi’—grassroot worker which translates to ‘friend of the people’—with Jeebika Suraksha Mancha, a people’s collective of the non-profit Atmashakti Trust. But after working for three months, she showed her interest to work on the Malnutrition-Free Villages project of the organisation, under which Health-Kit was being formed
Since then, she has been working as a ‘Health Animator’ under the Health-Kit intervention — a community-owned model that aims to provide basic preventive medicine to the community through the trained village-based Swasthya Sathi (health worker) and links them with the state and central government’s existing health schemes. The Sathi does everything from maintaining registers to supporting government health workers in the village.
There are 21 varieties of basic preventive medicines available in the kit.
Unlike many others, Pravasini is not privileged enough to provide this service only out of her good will. She comes from a humble background and needs to support her family. Despite that austerity, she would make 2-3 rounds of the villages every day, to monitor the work of 76 male and 37 female Swasthya Saathis in Tumudibandha block and educate villagers about the importance of healthcare. During the rainy season, she even has to cross streams and waterways to reach these villages.
Pravasini further adds, “Women and adolescent girls in these communities usually hesitate to share their health issues with the family, especially with male members, due to their social settings but they are able to share everything with me, a woman. This helps me know their needs and create a space to guide them.”
Villagers and the people’s representatives are all praise for Pravasini as a do-gooder.
“Earlier, for treating a minor fever or headache, we had to travel 8 to 10 kilometres to reach a Primary Health Centre, established by the government. It was expensive as we spent the entire day and also spent Rs 200 to 500 per visit. Coming down from the hills for treatment is also a difficult task. Sometimes, when we reach the hospital, we come to know that medical professionals are not available. But we don’t have to do that now thanks to Pravasini and her team who came to our village and motivated people to form a Health-Kit. Today, we are able to avail medicine for common ailments [like fever, cold, diarrhea, headache and cough] from the same. Her team is also persistently educating and counselling people about health, which itself is an empowering exercise,” says Sasmita Majhi, Sarpanch of Guma Gram Panchayat.
Majhi adds, “The State Government should also make similar efforts to serve the unmet health needs of these communities in cut-off areas where referral transportation services of the government such as 102 and 108 [the Free Referral Transport Services and Free Emergency Ambulance Service, respectively] are mostly unavailable.”
“Pravasini’s job does not end here. She also educates people about the ill effects of child marriage, menstrual hygiene and motivates people to develop backyard kitchen gardens to meet the balanced nutritional requirement of these families,” says Nityananda Thanapati, programme manager of Malnutrition-Free Villages project that has helped 181 villages of over 21,000 villagers in four blocks in Kandhamal.
“Research reports and our long work experience with these communities give away that tribes often experience poor access to health and wellbeing. That made us propose the Health-kit, a cost-effective and community-owned healthcare model to cater to their essential health needs. So, it is heartening to witness that the model is being accepted well by people across the vicinity where the role of women like Pravasini and Swasthya Sathis are catalytic. We need more such women like her,” says Ruchi Kashyap, Executive Trustee of Atmashakti Trust, the organization which works with Jeebika Suraksha Mancha for the implementation of the project.
(Written by Naba Kishor Pujari, a Bhubaneswar-based freelance journalist and a development professional; Edited by Yoshita Rao)