Getting up from the cot, I freshened up and had breakfast. It was a field day. Each time I go out, I meet a new group of people. Among everyone there, children are the ones whom I get along with, soon. Though language is a barrier between us, the games become a universal language to blur the boundaries and help me get closer to them by engaging in play. This time though, the concern was around pregnant women’s health and infant vaccination.
Rituals To Revolution
My colleague and I went to this hamlet, Navaapara. There, I met Gomti Ben, a 50-year-old woman, the head of the vaandh (local word for hamlet). It was inspiring to see a woman heading the vaandh. I was intrigued to know more about her. In the beginning of the conversation itself, she said, “Observe each house in the vaandh and tell me what is most common”. After a few hours, I came back to her with several observations. She nodded when I said “Cot“.
I got to know that she had raised her voice for making cots available in her vaandh. An everyday object that’s not difficult to access for me was once not allowed for women to use here. Especially, women who are pregnant or in postpartum (after giving birth) period. In times when they need utmost care, they couldn’t even sleep on the cot.
The people of the Devi Pujak Samaj have been long following this ritual. They strongly believe that their Kuldevi (community Goddess) has forbidden the women in postpartum not just from using the cot but also from touching any utensils or even entering the house. In this period, the woman and her baby are supposed to stay in a shed outside the house. It is often the shed where reared cattle are kept along with the grass they feed. Many insects hover around there. This staying outside the house continues for 1.5 months.
When Gomti ben delivered her son, she had to undergo this ritual, too. Keeping aside the issues of cleanliness in the shed and physical difficulty in sitting down and getting up after the delivery, she worried the most when an insect bit her son and he got rashes. Since this was a long time ago, appropriate medication was not easily available for infants. People were not even aware about what to do in this case. Fortunately, by using some of their native ayurvedic therapies, her son recovered.
More recently, when her daughter-in-law was pregnant, she did not want her to face the same difficulties. So, after delivery, she asked her to sleep inside, that too not on the floor but on a cot. She also ensured a clean and safe environment for both the child and the mother. Of course, many people opposed her. But she told them…
“When women are not objected to sleep on a cot in the hospital, why do that at homes?”
Her confidence and courage shut many mouths and encouraged many others. Most families agreed to her. They supported women to sleep on cots post-delivery and ensured good hygiene.
But this wasn’t easy. First, she fought for herself, leveraging her power from within. Only then she could stand for her daughter-in-law and against other members of the local community. But once she raised her voice, many echoed it and they together used it to bring change. Although we cannot expect appreciation from those who have it, its value is understood from those who don’t.
Sacrificing Comfort For Protection
After meeting Gomti Ben, we went to another Vaandh to work on the vaccination of infants. Busy with their everyday chores, the women often forget the specific months and dates for their babies’ shots. To avoid this and ensure good infant health, I along with my colleague went door to door and reminded mothers that it’s time for vaccinations. We checked everyone’s Mamta card (issued by Gujarat government) and informed those who needed to visit the center.
Then, we went to the health sub center. The whole place echoed with screeches and cries of children as they were getting vaccinated. After the nurse called out their names, we rechecked their cards and ensured correct details. This time I couldn’t play with them as they, along with their mothers, were busy in comforting their younger siblings.
While this is a normal scene in a sub-center, I witnessed an out-of-ordinary situation. The nurse called out a name but nobody was turning up. After waiting for a while, my colleague and I began searching for the woman. We went to all the waiting rooms and ultimately found her near the gate. She was sitting there with her child crying, clearly anxious about vaccination.
She didn’t want her child to get injected as she too was afraid of it. We first took her inside the center and made the other mothers speak to her to assure that no harm will come to the baby. We also had her meet other children who took their shots and were healthy. This subsided her fear of the child catching fever, cold, and cough. Additionally, we also showed her YouTube videos which emphasize the importance of vaccination among children. After all this, she was convinced.
Maybe this is just one instance where the mother was concerned about her child’s fear of the needle.
A voluntary organisation working on maternal and child health will spread awareness about the benefits of vaccines and even make it more accessible. Volunteers like me will go house to house 3-4 times. But what after that? Parents should realize that they have a moral responsibility too, that vaccinations are already a solution to the problem that may arise and quickly escalate in future. To avoid rushing their children to the nearest health center later.
I understand that this will take a lot of time and access to information about health and well-being. Only by working together, we can build a healthier and safer future for every child.