Cycling Home to Home, ASHA Worker Fought Casteism to Transform an Entire Village

Matilda Kullu is an ASHA worker from Odisha’s Sundargarh district. She is the only ASHA worker from India to be mentioned third on the Forbes W-Power 2021 list.

At 5 am every morning Odisha’s Matilda Kullu (46), an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker, is up doing her regular household chores. She readies herself for the day and leaves home at around 7.30 am after having made lunch for the family and fed the cattle.

She emerges from her home in a crisp blue saree that she has neatly pinned onto her shoulder. An identity card around her neck, she carries her bag and mounts her cycle, setting out for the day’s work. In her handbag, you are likely to find a pen, a notepad, a first-aid kit, a lunch box and water bottle.

In 2006, Matilda was appointed as an ASHA worker for Gargadbahal village in Baragaon tehsil of Odisha’s Sundargarh district. 

ASHA worker matilda kullu wears a mask as she administers polio drops to a child in a clinic
Matilda Kullu administering polio drops.
Photo Courtesy: Matilda Kullu

Speaking to The Better India, she says, “When I started working as an ASHA worker, the prime motivation was to earn some money to support my family. The earnings that my husband brought home never seemed enough for a family of four, more so since I wanted to educate my children well. Until 2006, I would take up odd jobs and some stitching work to make ends meet, but that was never sufficient.”

Today, with over 950 people, mostly from the Kharia tribe whom Matilda looks after, she says she knows all their health records and troubles like the back of her hand.

‘But hospitals and doctors were not looked upon very favourably.’

Matilda Kullu with one of the villagers.
Door-to-door campaigns.
Photo Courtesy: Matilda Kullu

The village that Matilda hails from had negligible health care access. None of the villagers would ever visit a doctor or a hospital if they fell ill. They would either resort to treating it with local herbs and concoctions or perform rituals, which included exorcism and sorcery that they believed would rid them of their disease. Matilda’s first point of action was to change this mentality.

She says, “Since pregnant women in the village did not see the need to visit a hospital for delivery, there were many instances of complications that would arise during childbirth. Convincing them about getting medical care was an uphill task.” Slowly but steadily Matilda singlehandedly brought about this change.

“In the beginning, my job entailed checking up on pregnant women and providing them with every kind of support possible. For taking a pregnant lady to the hospital, we were given Rs 600 per patient,” she recalls.

The sad part is that even today, almost 15 years later, that sum has not increased.

During a vaccination drive, Matilda an ASHA worker oversees inoculation of a man.
Making health care accessible.
Photo Courtesy: Matilda Kullu

It took Matilda a very long time to convince the villagers about getting their health check-ups done in hospitals. The reservation to do this was very strong. “I would go door-to-door explaining the importance, especially in households where there were pregnant women. Even the basic supplements that one is to consume while pregnant was something that was difficult to have the women take,” she says.

With a few successful and smooth deliveries in the hospital women started feeling confident. Matilda adds here that till date she would have assisted on over 200 deliveries.

‘This work is beyond the salary I get.’

Matilda Kullu helping out post delivery.
Helping out post delivery.
Photo Courtesy: Matilda Kullu

After her years of service, Matilda says that the one thing that hasn’t changed very much is the salary. She says on an average someone with her experience will take home not more than Rs 5,000 per month. “Financially things are still tough for me at home. Every once in a while, I continue to undertake stitching work to make sure that there is enough money for the household,” she adds.

Matilda says that after a few years of work, doctors started entrusting more work to them. “There have been times when the doctor has called us into the labour room and explained how they help deliver a child. They want us to learn just in case there are situations in which we need to do it by ourselves. This has happened only because of the trust that they have and the work that we do,” she says.

Gradually even the vaccination drive work for children in the village was entrusted to Matilda. “Then came the phase when family planning was being implemented. Even though this involved a lot of travelling and door-to-door campaign work, the money I was paid for it barely covered my conveyance charge. Even then, I completed all the work,” she says.

“We do not get a fixed salary. We only receive incentives on the number of patients we bring to the hospital, get vaccinated etc,” she says.

Driving change ground up

Matilda Kullu with a villager.
A large part of the work done by Matilda is for the women of the village.
Photo Courtesy: Matilda Kullu

“There was a time I was shunned because of my caste. I would not be allowed to even touch a pregnant woman, forget taking her to the hospital. Today, people seek me out. The same families that once looked at me with disgust call me when their daughters or daughters-in-law are pregnant and need to be taken to the hospital,” she says.

Matilda feels proud to have reached this stage where the villagers can sit across from her and enjoy their cup of tea together. “I am not a social pariah anymore and the credit for this change goes to the work I am involved in,” she says with pride.

On being the first ASHA worker to be recognised and featured in the Forbes India W-Power 2021 list, she says, “Never did I imagine anyone outside my small village would know me, forget about this global recognistion. I was made aware of how big an honour this is by others. They told me that I was featured alongside very well-known and respected entrepreneurs like Arundathi Bhattacharya, Aparna Purohit and even IPS officer Rema Rajshwari.”

The entire village erupted into celebrations when Matilda’s name was mentioned on the list. 

District Administration Sundargarh felicitating Matilda Kullu
Accolades for Matilda Kullu
Photo Courtesy: Matilda Kullu

She recalls the number of television channel crew and reporters who started thronging the village. “It turned into such a celebration here,” she says with a smile. “That will always be something I hold very close to my heart. Being able to get this recognition for an ASHA worker is my life’s biggest achievement.”

For 51-year-old Jyoti Kumari, it was Matilda’s insistence that led to her becoming an ASHA worker in 2007. She says, “In a sense Matilda paved the way for many of us. She would visit us, talk to us about the work she was involved in and was always encouraging us to join the programme. It has given me so much confidence in myself. I never imagined stepping out of my home and doing any job and yet here I am doing this for 15 years.”

The satisfaction of having helped someone in need is what keeps these ASHA workers going. “If the money was better it would be the icing on the cake, but that has never stopped me from doing my job and never will,” concludes Matilda.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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