By Chinki Sinha
GAYA, Patna, 03 July 2015 - At the crossing she finds her husband out for a walk with her children, and they exchange smiles before she turns into the alley to check on a mother, whose two children are frail and weak. The mother Yasmin Parveen herself is ailing, and Gulshan Ara, the aanganwadi worker in this block of Sherghati in Gaya district of Bihar doesn’t mince her words.
“Are you breasfeeding the child?” she says, and then moves quickly to study the chart that tracks the development of her little child “Don’t feed him water. Mother’s milk is all he needs. Mothers’s milk has everything that the child needs,” advises Gulshan.
Parveen is 25, and her eyes are dazed. Gulshan Ara says she will need to come with her to the hospital for a checkup. This isn’t part of the responsibilities of an aanganwadi worker, who is a community worker to provide outreach services in the local community, but Gulshan Ara goes beyond her call of duty, and understands the issues of the community and the prevalent lack of awareness, especially related to health and nutrition. Every morning she goes on a round, and checks up on families, in the catchment area of her Anganwadi centre.
She is a now a well-respected member of the community that is struggling with poverty, and social taboos, and because she herself went through it, she knows how to relate to young women who have become mothers and have no knowledge about basic child and maternal health.
“I used to tell my father I wanted to study more, and I got scholarships but he said that if I studied more, he wouldn’t be able to find a man for me,” she says, and her eyes have a faraway look in them. If she had been allowed to study further, she says, she could have scaled new heights, and not ended up in a marriage that didn’t allow her to venture out of the house at all.
In her white and red sari, the typical uniform for anganwadi workers, she pulls the end of the saree around her face, and walks around the community where women are almost always looking forward to her visits because they can open up to her.
The conversations do not just revolve around issues of maternal and child health, but veer into other day to day family issues. She says that’s how you break ice, and help them understand simple things that even she hadn’t known until she underwent training by UNICEF that supports Bihar government in its ICDS program.
“When I got married, I didn’t know one must exclusively breastfeed the child for six months and not even give water. We used to give water in summer, and I did it for my own children; Now I know breastmilk is enough till a child is six month’s old,”.
Earlier, my job didn’t require me to fill out charts but now I do, and I see the importance of doing it as you can keep track of the children at your centre, and take measures to ensure they are not malnourished,” Gulshan Ara says.
“I like my job. Now people recognise me,” she says. “They listen to me, and children are now not falling ill so often here. It is just the basic things, and the training helped me understand. Previously, I had to distribute ration cards, and do basic stuff, but now I feel I am doing well, and giving back to the community.”
At the anganwadi centre, children are waiting for their meal and Gulshan Ara tells them to go bring plates from their homes and then commands them to wash their hands. They obey her, and when food is served, they are happy, and Gulshan Ara sits and watches them eat.
The work stretches beyond the stipulated hours, and it demands more from her than what she signed for. But she doesn’t complain. “I am learning too. It has been two years on the job for her, but she is now an inspiration for other centres,” she says.
Gulshan Ara is now pursuing her bachelor’s via distant education, and wants to apply for the position of the supervisor because ambition is good, she says.
“I have been running this centre for a few years, and now it is my passion but I want to do more,” she says. “I used to get nervous when I started and not speak with the men, but now I am confident.
They used to say I was knocking on their doors for survey, and they were rude, but now they welcome me. It is like I have so many families. Even when I am sick, I come and sit here, and work with the children.”
Both children and mothers are happy with Gulshan Ara and the work done in the Anganwadi centre. She knows that she needs to work hard so she can keep going and help women in the area understand things that will make them better mothers. “The children will not suffer, and maybe one day they will break free from this vicious rut of poverty”
“Health is important. If you are malnourished, then you will be stunted in your development, and you won’t do well. The poor have to work harder, and if they remain healthy, they can come out of poverty that binds them forever, she says.