Azera Parveen Rahman
DARRANG India, February 2013 - Meet Zahura Khatoon, a cleaner at the Kharupetia Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC). Don’t go by her designation in the workplace because as you watch her share a laugh with young mothers in the centre, or see her persuade an elderly gentleman in the village not to compromise with his grandchild’s health by reposing faith in superstition, you realise that she is doing much more than her job as a cleaner in the NRC.
Chirpy, positive and full of life, Zahura is somebody everyone looks up to -- from her family, colleagues at work, parents of children admitted to the NRC and the community at large. No wonder then that the doctor and nurses in the NRC also depend on her to reach out to families of young patients more effectively.
“Bulbuli (her nickname) is a natural when it comes to communicating with people. Of course, it helps that she is from the community that we work with, so she has the trust of the people already. But she has definitely built up on that,” says Sangeeta Saikia, the dietician at the NRC.
Wearing a bright pink sari and a dazzling nose pin, Zahura’s laughter is infectious. After doing her cleaning work, she walks around the centre, talking to mothers and playing with their children. “Have you washed your hands before feeding your child?” she asks a mother. As the latter nods, she offers her finger to the child to clasp her tiny fingers around. “She’s looking much better today,” she comments, as the mother beams.
Here, at the NRC, severely acute malnourished (SAM) children, in the age group of 6 months to 5 years are provided treatment, combining therapeutic diet with medical care. Evidence has shown that mortality rate in children with SAM is nine times higher than well-nourished children. UNICEF is partnering with NRHM Assam in this strategic evidence-based intervention through technical support for the development of protocols, capacity-building of NRC staff, as well as data management.
In her own words, Zahura always wanted to do something good for society, especially for women. “Most women in my community are illiterate. They do not know their rights, and don’t have a voice. Here, in my own small way, I try and do what I can for the young mothers whose children are ill because of their lack of awareness. Since I am from the community, I am aware of prevailing common practices and can, therefore, advice the women accordingly. I also help the doctor to carry out a proper assessment of the child,” she says.
For instance, it is a common practice to feed honey to a new born child, right after birth. This is a harmful tradition as an infant is supposed to be fed colostrum and exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Mixed feeding, with breast milk and cow’s milk, is also common for 0-6 month old infants.
“However, things have started improving now. Earlier people were sceptical about the NRC, but now the demand generated at the community level is extremely high and the staff here are always pressed for time. I pitch in too, in every way I can,” Zahura, 36, says.
At the community level, Zahura also commands a lot of respect. Wherever she goes, villagers come to her, some with their problems, others with a bag of vegetables from their kitchen garden to show their gratitude for helping and advising them on some problem or the other, or even facilitating the admission process at the NRC.
“Did you not see what happened to your neighbour’s grandchild? Do you want the same to happen to yours?” she asks an elderly gentleman in the village when his daughter-in-law told her that he protested her decision to take her child to the NRC.
Further on, she promises to take an elderly woman to the doctor, and enquires from a group of children about the overall well-being of their families.
On returning to the NRC, Zahura recounts how she contested the Panchayat elections in 1995. “I lost the elections, but that zeal to do something for the community stayed with me. My father supported me, and later, after I got married, so did my husband. But I got busy with my home and child for a few years in between”. Even as she speaks, Zahura continues to keep a sharp eye on the visitors to the NRC, most of whom are family members of the admitted children. She calls out to a man to remove his slippers before entering the NRC and accepts greetings from those passing by.
“I get immense satisfaction from what I do here. So I go beyond my call of duty -- I teach the women, not just about child care, but also about cleanliness and hygiene, family planning and other pertinent issues. I have even sorted out domestic problems, fights between husband and wife….all by sitting here, in the ward! God willing, I want to continue doing as much as I can to help people,” she says with a smile.