Sophia Nesamoney is a sophomore at Castilleja school in Palo Alto, CA. She spent some time at AIF’s MANSI program this summer. This is the first of the three blog posts that chronicles Sophia’s visit to rural Jharkhand.
Imagine you are a young girl named Mamta living in a rural village in the state of Jharkhand, India. From a young age, your biggest dream was to become a teacher, but at the age of 12, your father stopped letting you attend school and you were forced to abandon your lifelong dreams. Once you become 15 years old, you longed for the days when you would no longer be controlled by your father; but instead, you were married off to another man who would control you in just the same way, and before you knew it, you became pregnant with your first child at only 16 years old. As soon as you found out that you were pregnant, your husband ordered you to fast for the next two weeks for “good luck”. Would you obey him?
For most women living in the United States, we are educated to know that eating is even more important during pregnancy; however, many Indian women like Mamta are denied control over their own bodies and are unaware that their husband is wrong. Imagine the hundreds of millions of women affected by harmful myths like these that are inflicted on them by their male-dominated societies. These women are forced to blindly follow the words of their husbands and fathers, even if it sends them to their deathbeds. This summer, I had the life-changing opportunity to travel to the American India Foundation’s Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative in rural Jharkhand. There, I met the most incredible young women who aspired to be doctors, teachers, and police women; unfortunately they were all met with the same unavoidable obstacle: pregnancy. In their society, young women are married off at the age of fifteen years old, and are expected to have a child by the time they are sixteen. Not only are these women denied control of their futures, but also of themselves and their children. But there is hope for these women, and this hope does not lie in the man who controls a woman, but in the woman herself. Since the Indian government has realized how important it is for women to be emancipated, they have selected one woman from each of these rural villages to be a Sahiya. In Hindi, “Sahiya” means helper, and in each of these villages, the role of the Sahiya is to teach women about their pregnancies as well as provide health check-ups for both the pregnant woman and her child up until the child reaches five years of age.
The American India Foundation has created a partnership with the Indian government as well as the Tata Steel Company to provide training to each of these Sahiyas in order to fully equip them for the many challenges they will face as a female leaders who will provide health care and advice to these women. Through AIF, the Sahiyas have become a respected and valued part of each community and have even opened and changed the minds of men in the villages. When I visited these villages, I attended a mothers meeting hosted by the Sahiya of that village whose name was Bisola. The meeting was filled with a range of women, from mothers holding their toddlers to young women expecting their first children. The purpose of the meeting was for Bisola to educate the expectant mothers on how to take care of their bodies during pregnancy as well as how to care for their children after pregnancy. The meeting started with Bisola pulling out a bag of items, which was provided by AIF. I like to think of the bag as a toolkit for female empowerment. Using a book from the toolkit, she started to teach them about pertinent topics such as anemia, nutrition, and the signs of high-risk pregnancies, and it was in that moment that I truly realized what an important role she played in her community. She had flipped to a page in the book that showed two different tongues, one of a healthy woman and one of a woman with anemia. Bisola asked the young women which tongue they thought was healthier, and each woman confidently responded that the pale pink tongue was much healthier and that the brighter tongue was only red because it was painted with nail polish. At this, I was puzzled, but I realized that they had responded this way because they were used to seeing the women around them who were anemic and had never known any different. I watched their faces fill with confusion as Bisola dispelled the myths that they they had been taught about pregnancy, and then saw their lips part in smile as they understood what she was teaching them. Though they were surprised that false ideas about pregnancy had been placed in their minds since they were young, they were even happier to understand that they possessed a newfound knowledge that put them in control of their own bodies for the first time and they knew that they were truly doing what was best for both themselves and their child.
AIF’s role in training the Sahiyas is incredibly influential, because a Sahiya ultimately holds the most power, even more than a husband or a doctor, over the health of both the woman and her child. This is because she is truly the greatest advocate for the woman. Though a woman’s family has incredible influence on the decisions they may make during pregnancy, the pregnant woman trusts that the Sahiya always has her best interest at heart. In addition, during a complex case where a hospital is not able to take care of the woman, the doctor still may try to persuade her to stay at the hospital, so that he can make more money. The woman’s husband may try to persuade her to leave the hospital altogether and go home, but he may be motivated by the cost that he will have to pay if she stays there. However, the Sahiya will ultimately seek what is best and may suggest that she is transported to a larger hospital that can handle the complexity of her case, and her decision is only motivated by saving the life of the mother and child. The Sahiya becomes the central system of support for expectant mothers and is trained to handle the most complex cases during childbirth. For example, many babies were dying in these villages because they had mucus clogged in their throats. As part of the training, AIF taught the Sahiyas to extract the mucus using mucus extractors, thereby saving the lives of thousands of babies. The mucus extractor is symbolic because only the Sahiya knows how to use it, which is why she holds such an important bond of trust and respect with the young mothers.
It is because of this that the Sahiya is valued by doctors and why her family is so proud of her, because through AIF, she has been empowered to save the lives of countless other women in the village. It then became clear to me why the Sahiyas were so respected in each village, it was because they became role models for the young women to look up to and the bond between the Sahiya and a pregnant woman was almost magnetic, because the Sahiya had become her biggest advocate and supporter. As the old proverb goes, “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation ”, as the knowledge spreads from the Sahiya to the pregnant women, it becomes infectious. These women proudly educate their families on the things that they learned and with the help of the Sahiya, will ultimately build an invincible force of powerful, educated females who are devoted to helping other young women gain control over their own bodies and raise healthy children who will grow up to do the same.