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As told by Akila Sayyed, translated by Surekha 

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Akila (center) with her family

After I got married at the age of 16, I worked on farms in the villages as well as factories in cities; however, my life never improved. I never found satisfaction in my work; no one respected me. I wasn’t contributing to the wellbeing of my family nor my community. While I was pregnant with my second child, I began experiencing hallucinations and delusions. My family and community members thought I was possessed by an evil spirit. I felt alone, confused, and scared. My parents-in-law and mother took me to see quack healers and magicians. While they gladly took our money, their treatments had no effect on my illness. Finally, my father brought me to a psychiatric hospital in Ahmednagar. There, I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and prescribed medication to mediate the side effects of my illness. The medications made me drowsy, and it took me months before I was productive and responsive again.

Once I recovered, I longed to work. My mother-in-law knew of CRHP, and I was told that I may be able to find some work there, so I gladly went. I arrived at CRHP ready to work in their kitchen or watering their gardens, however, I was taken to a room full of women dressed in nice saris from all different castes, tribes, and religions. I sat in the back of the room hoping not to be noticed, but the women approached me. They described their work as Village Health Workers in their villages. These women, some never having even been to school, served as doctors delivering babies and providing primary healthcare throughout their villages. Soon Dr. Raj Arole, one of the founders of CRHP, walked into the room and began teaching a class on heart disease and hypertension. The class was both fascinating and simple. Towards the end, Dr. Arole noticed me sitting in the back and asked me to come to the front of the class to lead the review session. Despite my ragged sari and my lack of experience in any health related topic, I attempted to explain what Dr. Arole had just taught us. After I finished talking, all of the Village Health Workers clapped for me. Dr. Raj pat me on the back; he asked me to come every week to class and become a health worker for my village. At that moment, I knew that I would face challenges within my community and even within my family, but I was inspired by the other health workers and encouraged by the idea of learning and transforming my community.

I remembered back to when I was alone and hopeless, suffering from hallucinations and delusions. There was no one in my village to check on me, care for me, explain what was happening, and encourage me to fight for myself and my health. I decided then that I would deliver health knowledge and care to my village so that no one else would have to feel alone and scared regardless of their situation.

I have served my village of Pimperkhed as a volunteer Village Health Worker associated with the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) since 2008. I act not only as a health worker and midwife for 3,500 village residents, but I also help mobilize my community to achieve better sanitation, hygiene, family planning, and maternal and infant health. Through my work going house-to-house, I provide basic preventive healthcare and knowledge to everyone in the village regardless of age, gender, caste, class, or ability. I provide nutritional advice, antenatal care, and hemoglobin, blood pressure, eye, and urine checks to all villagers in need.

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Akila and Village Health Workers (VHWs) demonstrating a few safe delivery techniques during a VHW training class

As a Village Health Worker, I provide a great deal of care to pregnant women and new mothers. I educate women on proper nutrition during pregnancy and proper breastfeeding practices. In addition, I examine the pregnant women and monitor the progress of the fetus during the pregnancy. I educate mothers about giving daily baths, breastfeeding for the first 6 months, and the process of introducing solid foods. I also encourage timely immunizations for children, a practice that was formerly feared by many villagers. While I am fully equipped to perform home deliveries in the case of an emergency or lack of access to a hospital, I also accompany women to a hospital delivery.

One of my main activities in the village is to improve the nutrition of women and children as well as promote women’s social and economic development. To achieve this, I help organize and facilitate Women’s Groups, Self-Help Groups, and Farmers’ Clubs along with Adolescent Boys and Girls groups within my village. In each of these groups, I stress the importance of gender equality for sustainable community development. The goals of Women’s Groups and Self-Help Groups are twofold: to increase women’s knowledge of healthcare and social issues and to collaboratively increase women’s income and create financial stability. I work with the Farmers’ Club to help keep the village clean and sanitary as well as implement other community development projects. I meet with adolescent boys and their parents in order to teach them important lessons about alcohol abuse, domestic violence, reproductive health, and gender equity. I visit all of the adolescent girls in the village to talk with them about dowry, early marriage, reproductive health, nutrition, family and child health, and the importance of education. I work closely with the parents to decrease the giving and taking of dowry for their children and keep their children in school until graduation.

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Akila and other Village Health Workers on the Jamkhed campus

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