Tag Archives: empowerment

A Message for the Community

I was recently asked, “If the population Calcutta Kids serves were to remember only one of the messages you give, what would it be?” Without any hesitation, I replied with a wonderful message I had just learned: “A child gaining weight cannot be very sick. A child not gaining weight cannot be very well.”

This is a message that Charles Janeway, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School told his students.

This simple, yet profound statement embodies the work of Calcutta Kids; it provides convincing verbal ammunition against many of the daily battles we fight against long-held superstitions, misinformation, and a general lack of understanding regarding the importance of good nutrition during the first 1000 days.

Explaining the science behind the cognitive and physical developments that occur in the first 1000 days of life depending on nutritional status is nearly impossible for an uneducated mother to understand. Counseling, behavioral change communication, growth monitoring and promotion, and access to healthcare — indeed everything we do at Calcutta Kids — does lead to reaching the objective of good nutrition within the window of opportunity. But the programs and the activities are not enough. In our efforts to get people to care about nutrition, I believe we are underutilizing our greatest resource — the women themselves with whom we work — the true movers and shakers. If these women truly grasp what we are trying to achieve for their children and why they will figure out ways to help others understand the problem; they will take the challenge personally and seriously; and they will ensure that they themselves are well looked-after during pregnancy and will ensure that their children get the nourishment they need at the right time.

There is simply no question that every mother wants what is best for her child. But in order to assure that she provides what is best to her children, she needs to understand and really believe that proper nutrition will make a difference.

We have translated Janeway’s message into Hindi and are promoting it as a sort of mantra for Calcutta Kids. Before long I hope that every pregnant woman and mother we work with will know the mantra — but more importantly will grasp its meaning.

Jab bache ka ho sahi vikas…

To hain ye sehat ka agaaz…

Jo bacha na ho mota Zindagi bhar hain woh rota…

(A child gaining weight cannot be very sick. A child not gaining weight cannot be very well.)

– Noah Levinson

Celebrating Women

Around the world, International Women’s Day is marked every year on March 8 to celebrate the participation, contribution, and achievements of women in society. In Fakir Bagan, women live day-to-day taking care of their children and husbands, and have little time to think about themselves. They live in a male dominated environment where alcohol abuse, verbal abuse, and domestic violence is considered a norm that they must accept. Women who earn an income to support the family not only face the same issues, but also face the problem of having their hard earned money taken away by their husbands to spend on alcohol or cigarettes. It is still a struggle for women in this community to make their own voices heard and to be aware of their rights and needs as women.

On the afternoon of March 7, Calcutta Kids held an early celebration of International Women’s Day in our Maa o Shishu Shiksha Kendra (Mother and Child Learning Center) in Fakir Bagan. Members of our women’s support group and their friends from the community joined in the celebration. We celebrated the immense strength women exhibit in their day to day lives throughout the year, recognizing the unlimited sacrifices made by women in this community.

During the event, our program coordinator Sumana helped the community reflect on the status of women in society, how to create awareness about women’s rights, and to think about approaches to empower women in Fakir Bagan. One beneficiary Hira Poddar, said, “These forums allow us the opportunity to get together and share our problems and gain strength from each other.” Another beneficiary, Mira Shaw, a single mother and sole income earner whose husband left her with two young children said, “I am very happy with my life because I can take responsibility for my own life and take good care of my children.”

After the staff members and women spoke, we stood in a circle and sang We Shall Overcome. The then danced to Bollywood music and played with Holi colors! It was a wonderful celebration and a reminder to all of us at Calcutta Kids to continue striving to create a space where women’s voices can be heard. –Danya Sarkar

Mothers Find Strength in Support Group

Mothers share best practices for preparing complementary foods

Although Calcutta Kids has a very close relationship with the women and children of Fakir Bagan, our efforts in community mobilization have been limited. Community meetings are held for pregnant women and mothers of young children, but these meetings are largely lecture style with information being given by our health workers. Our goal in organizing a women’s support group was to create a completely different type of forum, where women would come together as friends to support each other and discuss issues that are relevant to them in their daily lives. They would lead the direction of the group and decide what activities they would like to carry out for themselves and within the community. When we started our first women’s support group in mid-November, we had no idea what to expect as we sat on the mat and waited for the women to appear. One by one they came- Rekha, Santi, Sakuntala, Fulo, Rakhi, Priyanka, Sova, and Urmila, their young children in tow. As they sat on the mat, we offered tea and biscuits and asked mothers to introduce themselves to each other. Sumana, the program coordinator, explained about support groups and asked them to think about whether they were interested in forming such a group.

The women were hesitant at first, but with some encouragement from Sumana, they began chatting with each other about themselves and where they had come from. The discussion then turned to their opinions about Fakir Bagan. A few positives were mentioned: “We like being close to a school and close to shops.” One woman mentioned that she enjoyed celebrations like Durga Puja in Fakir Bagan. The majority of discussion centered on negative views: “We don’t like the water here. We don’t like the filth. Every time it rains it floods and water comes into our homes. It makes life very difficult. When this happens, the children get sick- diarrhea and vomiting. The toilets are disgusting and no one cleans after they use. It makes us feel sick to use the toilet.” Most of their concerns related to health, hygiene, and sanitation, but they all perceived a lack of community feeling in Fakir Bagan: “People only think about themselves. In our area people don’t help each other out.”

At the end of our meeting, the women told us that they enjoyed getting together and learning from each other, but most importantly they liked the idea of becoming a support group and becoming friends. Our senior health workers were very excited by this ‘different kind of meeting’, where women were able to speak and get to know each other instead of only sharing information with the health workers. As women were able to express their feelings, health workers were able to learn how they feel. At Calcutta Kids, these meetings are the first step in our community mobilization effort, and we hope that the group will encourage community-based initiatives that will help improve the quality of life in Fakir Bagan. – Danya Sarkar

A Mother’s Story

Rekha with Rani at the start of YChiNG and shortly after the birth of Madhu

Rekha Shaw is an out-going, energetic woman who participated actively in the YChiNG trial. Her two youngest children were malnourished and were in a terrible condition when we enrolled them in the program. Rani, at 29 months, weighed 7.31 kg (a little over 16 pounds) with a weight for age z-score (WAZ) of -4.296. Rani was stunted and developmentally delayed—she could not stand up, let alone walk. Her younger sister Madhu was faring slightly better but was still severely underweight: at 16 months, she weighed 6.58 kg (about 14.5 pounds) with a WAZ of -3.3. Both girls were very anemic, had high worm loads, and suffered from frequent acute infections.

Their mother, Rekha, has six daughters, a result of repeated pregnancies in an attempt to have a son. Tragically, she did have a son (born after the first four daughters), but he died just after birth for reasons she does not know. She lives with a mother-in-law who is not supportive and pressures her to bear a son. She also lives with a husband, who drinks and does not care for her or the children. She says, ‘There is nothing good about that man. He does nothing. He beats me.’ As her husband’s income was not sufficient, she began working outside of the home as caretaker (for an ill person) in order to provide for her children.

Rani and Madhu with mother Rekha at the YChiNG graduation

Despite all odds, Rekha was determined to give her youngest daughters a chance to succeed…. and we were determined to help her. After six months in YChiNG, the two girls have made significant gains in growth and development. Rani is still in the severe underweight category but her WAZ has improved to -3.207. Most importantly, she has learned to stand up and now she walks! Madhu’s weight has increased tremendously and she moved from severe to moderate to mild underweight in the past six months, a remarkable achievement. They have both improved in anemia status, have increased appetites, and learned to feed themselves with a spoon. We are so proud of Rekha for her courage, and so pleased to see Rani and Madhu now running, drawing, and playing in our center! -Danya Sarkar

Empowering Women in a Male Dominated Society

On October 28th, Sima Das, a community health worker here at Calcutta Kids gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Sonali. Sonali could very well have been the 7 billionth baby born into this world, with the UN symbolically marking the milestone only three days later on October 31st. While population growth and the escalating urbanization of India are large issues, the biggest issue in Sima’s family and the people of Fakir Bagan who had seen Sima throughout her pregnancy was the gender of her baby.

As we were walking through Fakir Bagan two weeks ago, Sima’s first time back since Sonali’s arrival, (just to visit!) women in their doorways called out “Kya huan?” meaning, “What kind?” (boy or girl) and Sima would respond “Larkie” meaning “Girl”. As we progressed through the slum, the response became steadily softer and more timid.

Sima is a strong woman. She is confident in herself as a mother, as a facilitator for health and as a role model for the community. But with disapproval and doubt coming from all sides, Sima started to doubt her belief that her second female child was not a limitation or liability.

Back at the office, with the other community health workers gathered around, we talked about how Calcutta Kids is a well run organization with a workforce that is 90% female, how the Chief Minister of West Bengal is a woman, and how the Government of India is run by a woman (although not officially). However, even with these great examples of powerful and influential women, Sima was still frustrated and upset.

West Bengal is not known for female feticide, unlike states like Punjab and Harayana where there are only 750 girls for every 1,000 boys. Even if the girls are not missing, the female children are clearly not valued in the same way as their male counterparts. This preference for male children indirectly leads to many of the problems that Calcutta Kids works to solve. Like the high rate of low birth weight which is mostly caused by women not eating enough during pregnancy. Or the high rate of domestic violence that is tolerated because women do not have the power to stand up to their husbands.

The frustration and upset that Sima was feeling have already started to diminish and will surely disappear as her daughter thrives and grows to become a wonderful, smart and powerful woman. But seeing the pervasive and blatant contempt for the female gender was a reminder that we do not live in a bubble and that at the end of the day, each of our community health workers must go back to a world of gender inequality. At the same time, I am sure that the time each of these community health workers spends in a place where women are as powerful, or more powerful, than men, allows them to see the possibility of an India, or a West Bengal, or a Fakir Bagan where the first thing a woman is asked after giving birth is not the gender of the baby. -Dora Levinson