In a small village of Assam, where there is no electricity, there is Kanchan, the hard-as-nails, social health worker working tirelessly to improve the health of the households in the village.
Kanchan begins her day at six o’ clock in the morning, gently rousing her family as light filters in through the makeshift curtains of their small, thatched home. They have only ever lived along the banks of rivers, wetlands and fields in Kali Kajari – a little known water-locked village, far removed from the bustling cityscapes of Assam.
She spends the next couple of hours with her daughter-in-law in tow, whipping up delicious parcels of food for each family member, atop a fire built with dry soil and dung, just like her grandmother taught her. Precious little has changed here despite the passage of time; electricity is yet to reach Kali Kajari.
When everyone has been lovingly sent off for their day’s business, Kanchan sets off on her own, navigating criss-crossing waterways and sinuous mud paths in a dilapidated wooden boat carrying over 30 people.
Perched precariously on the edge of the vessel, Kanchan doesn’t bat an eyelid. Each lunging swell and dip goes unnoticed as she thinks ahead to her destination: a routine sector meeting in Jagi Bhakat Gaon (village) where she will meet with 150 fellow government-appointed Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANM). These are local women trained to act as health educators and promoters in their communities; they serve as conduits for the Indian National Health Mission.
Kanchan works with Plan India as part of the mission’s response to a burgeoning nationwide HIV epidemic. Essentially, she is a bridge between the healthcare system and hard-to-reach pregnant mothers and their families, who are vulnerable to infection.
Some time ago, Kanchan’s children had come of age, leaving her with time on her hands and seeking fulfilment. Over the years, she had forged strong relationships in her community; her amiable nature and analytical bend of mind endeared her to neighbours who nominated her to the position of the first ever ASHA in Kali Kajari.
This was not a responsibility she took lightly.
Come hail or high water – and both came in rapid abundance during ravaging storms – Kanchan laboured through inordinate distances, inundated, barely-there roads and dangerous waterways to get to the women she served.
Kali Kajari is over three hours away from the nearest district hospital and about five hours away from the better equipped civil hospital in the city; both hospitals are only reachable by water and then by road.
Still, she ensured that pregnant women and their families understood the importance of routine medical check-ups, curative care, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, healthy living, safe deliveries and immunisation.
In the beginning, most families preferred the viselike comfort of traditional, familiar treatment compared to modern medicine. It was unlike anything they’d ever seen and they looked on it – and Kanchan – with suspicion.
“No more lives would be lost to avoidable diseases, I told them, if they’d just give us a chance… Eventually, they did,” she recalls.
In the following years, Kanchan was able to link every single pregnant woman in Kali Kajari, to the hospital and ensure their children were delivered by experienced medical professionals, whom she also sensitised. To this day, the children are routinely vaccinated, maintain healthy diets and exceptional hygiene along with their families.
“Words cannot describe the joy I feel when I walk through the village and am greeted by big smiles and warm wishes for their ‘ASHA Baido’ (ASHA Sister),” she says.
Kanchan’s perseverance has led to countless healthier children, mothers and families, not only in her community but in adjoining villages as well.
Now, they are on a first name basis with doctors they would earlier shrink from; mothers deliver their babies according to pre-determined birth plans in safe and hygienic hospitals; they undergo HIV testing and receive anti-retroviral therapy when necessary; they drink safer water and eat wholesome food so their children no longer succumb to diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition; they know their rights and aren’t afraid to wield them.
Kanchan, with every determined step she has taken over the years, irrevocably transformed the face of Kali Kajari and the lives of all its people.
“There are days I look up to find dark, rolling clouds as far as the eye can see. They herald the all-too familiar floods and their disruptions. Women and children are especially at risk. Most people would cower in their homes then – but not me and my ASHA sisters. When times are tough, we set to work knowing our communities need us. It’s not always easy, but we’re driven by purpose and that’s what matters,” she says.
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