It is a great time of year to be in Kolkata. The weather has cooled down, the goats are wearing sweaters, and people are all bundled in scarves, hats and gloves. I’ve also brought the heaviest sweater I have out of storage in my suitcase and have been wearing it to work. The expected high today is 26C degrees (about 78F). Feels like winter to me!
One element of my work with Calcutta Kids has been community mobilization. Because the slum area is largely comprised of migrant families from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and is a very transient population, there is not a strong sense of community. However, Calcutta Kids recognizes that social support is an essential element to health, so I have been charged with helping define a strategy for improving social support within the community.
Our pilot support group is comprised of women with malnourished children. They are a diverse group, and are women who have not necessarily been recognized as community leaders or change agents. Our aim is to see if a support network can be fostered within this group, and our strategy has been to let the women lead the meetings as much as possible. The women meet for one hour once each week. We provide chai and biscuits for the mothers, and snacks and childcare for the children.
We have had five meetings, and it has been remarkable so far! During the first meeting, our facilitator and director of community health workers, asked the women what they like and what they dislike about the community. This simple question led to the women identifying many public health concerns within the community. They talked about the water being bad and making them sick (one woman said her father-in-law insists they always boil their water, and they do not get sick). They talked about the diarrhea and vomiting that occurs when it floods; they talked about the extremely poor toilet facilities, and their husbands beating them and their children. One mother of six daughters, two of whom are malnourished, said “If there is something nice going on, everyone comes. But if someone has a problem, then no one comes to help out.” The women expressed that they have no other outlet to simply talk with one another, and they were very happy with the opportunity to meet.
At last week’s meeting, the women expressed that they would like to know more about how to improve health within the community. One mother expressed that she didn’t really understand what the doctor told her until another mother in the community explained it to her. She said if she knew more, she could also help other mothers understand.
Taking their lead, our health workers will continue to let the women lead the discussions, identify best practices, and ask questions as they come up. The health workers and doctor are readily available to answer questions if the women cannot come up with the answer.
The women of Fakir Bagan are strong and resilient. We are learning that they have a desire not only to improve the lives of their children and families, but the lives of those around them. It is our hope that this pilot group will lead to more support groups within the community, and more leadership and helping among neighbors. This will not only strengthen the mission of Calcutta Kids, but it will lead to a healthier community.
With all of the sad and discouraging things we see each day, it is incredibly encouraging to spend one hour each week with these women and to see their progress after only five weeks.