Written by: Sumana Vardhan Sofiabai is a 73-year-old VHW in Patoda with expansive experience working in improving health, women’s empowerment, and tackling societal obstacles. Growing up as the oldest of sixteen children, Sofiabai felt pressure to take care of the household early on. The pardah system existed in her small Muslim community within her village, which prevented her mother and aunt from leaving the house. This left Sofiabai to bring water from the well for the whole family by herself – a task that often took over four hours. When Sofiabai was seven, tensions between Hindus and Muslims in her village were reaching a peak, and her family did not feel safe living in their home. They sought safety with a goat-herding family who lived farther from the community and stayed with them for over a year. When she returned to her village, her brother started attending school. In her community, girls did not attend school, but in order to take care of her brother, Sofiabai walked her brother to and from school. Her teacher noticed Sofiabai everyday and asked her father to enroll her in school. Her father declined because even if she did study, she could never hold a job due to pardah. Sofiabai’s aunt from Hyderabad visited the family and noticed her doing a majority of the housework. In an effort to help her relatives care for their children, she took Sofiabai back to Hyderabad. There, Sofiabai realized that since she had never read the Qur’an, her grandmother would not even take a cup of water from her. With determination, Sofiabai learned how to read Arabic. She enjoyed her time with her aunt and grandmother, but after her first menses, her aunt sent her back home to get married.
At the age of twelve, Sofiabai was married. Even though family members told her parents she was too young, they were financially burdened by their 11 other girl children to be married. After marriage, Sofiabai raised a family of three daughters and two sons. Like most of the village, her family relied on agriculture for income. Caught in what seemed to be a never-ending drought, her family went many days without food and tried their best to provide clothes and other necessary items for their kids. It was during this time that Drs. Mabelle and Raj Arole began looking at her village to work with CRHP. They had asked the village leader for illiterate women who would be interested in working with them, and Sofiabai was the top choice. Mrs. Ratna Kamble (hyperlink to her interview) stopped by her home one day to get to know her, and asked if she had eaten. Sofiabai lied and said yes, but her daughter told Mrs. Kamble the truth – that they had not eaten for many days. Mrs. Kamble brought Sofiabai grains, oils, and materials so she could feed her family and asked if she would work as a Village Health Worker (VHW). She was interested, but the decision lied with her husband. Due to pardah, her husband said no; however, her father-in-law, said she must go and that she had his blessing. Sofiabai began attending training in Jamkhed and was very nervous. Since Hindu and Muslim communities were separate in her village, she was not sure if she could talk freely with the other VHWs who were mostly Hindu. On her first day of class, she contemplated going home while sitting at the CRHP gate. Another VHW saw her, greeted her, and took her to class. After this warm welcoming, Sofiabai knew she would enjoy the company of her fellow VHWs.
Since she started her work, Sofiabai has seen many improvements in her village. Treating diarrhea and pneumonia as well as practicing safe deliveries has greatly decreased the infant mortality rate. Moreover, the pardah system no longer exists in her village; women of all religions can now talk to men, attend weddings, go to their neighbors’ homes, and spend time together. The creation of the women’s group prompted women to start small businesses and make their own incomes. Sofiabai believes that the biggest change for women is seen by the average number of children per family, which in her village is two or three. Women now undergo tubal ligation as a form of family planning, which allows for more financial fluidity and greater quality of care for each child. Tubal ligation used to be an issue because Muslim women felt that birth control was going against God’s wish, but over time they have changed their minds about women’s health. When asked about her work, she says, “In the beginning, it was hard to go door-to-door and try to help those who did not believe in me. I did not even believe in myself. What kept me going was one saying: ‘If each family is in good health, then a village can be in good health’. This same saying keeps me motivated in my work today and makes me certain that our village will always be improving.”
Did you know…?
Pardah: A religious and social practice of preventing men from seeing women, which is prevalent in Muslim communities. Following pardah usually restricts personal, social, and economic activities outside the home. The common garment worn by women is a burqa, which covers the head, body, and face. Only close male family members and other women are allowed to see women outside of pardah.
Child marriages: Nearly half of Indian marriages include a girl under the age of 18. This illegal practice is driven by poor families’ desires to free themselves from daughters who are seen as an economic drain on their resources when it comes to the practice of dowry and the prevention of premarital sex and pregnancy. Unfortunately, girls married before the age of 18 are twice as likely to suffer incidences of domestic violence and have a higher risk of sexual abuse within marriage. The girls often become pregnant within a year or two of marriage; 22 percent of Indian girls have given birth before the age of 18, which endangers both the mother and child. Girls under the age of 18 are twice as likely to die during childbirth, and their infants are 50 percent more likely to result in stillbirths and newborn deaths. Early marriages, for boys and girls, put an early end to childhood and often education, negatively impacting their health and development potential.
Village Health Workers (VHWs) are the cornerstones of CRHP services. These elected villagers, usually Untouchables or lower-caste women, arrive at CRHP to receive health care training. The courses that they take not only provide the necessary knowledge to improve village health, but also strive to improve self-esteem and comradery among the women. While VHWs undergo their training with CRHP, they are able to return to their villages and not only improve health, but also earn the respect of their communities.