By Azera Rehman
LALITPUR, India, 7 August 2013 – It has been a long journey for Kalpana Vishwakarma. She got married when she was 14 years old, delivered her first child at 17, followed by two more, and bore the torture of living with an alcoholic husband from whom she managed to escape.
At 29, she is aged beyond her years, but you can sense the satisfaction in her smile as villagers of Rajghat come to greet and bless her for her work. Kalpana has helped hundreds of babies in Rajghat to get a better start to their lives.
“Whichever home I visit today, the children are healthy, and therein lies my happiness. I feel proud of my work, and what gives me even more satisfaction is that my parents are so proud of me,” she says getting a little emotional.
“I can feel that my confidence and self-esteem grow with each passing day. People treat me with respect and listen to what I have to say,” she adds.
It took multiple door-to-door visits, counselling with pregnant and lactating women, and meeting with husbands and mothers-in-law for people to finally trust Kalpana’s messages.
“My biggest challenge was superstition. Here the practise was to feed the child water and later cow’s milk. When I started to approach mothers with messages about the importance of breastfeeding their children within the first hour, some commented with sarcasm that I was too educated,”says Kalpana.
Prem Kumari, a young mother in the village, still remembers how Kalpana’s advice helped her daughter grow up healthy. “Anushka was low birth weight (less than 2500gms) at birth and our relatives told us to feed her cow’s milk to put on weight.
Kalpana strictly advised my mother-in-law and me to breastfeed her instead, and said that that alone would help the child. Unlike other underweight babies in the village, my daughter did not fall ill”. “Seeing cases like Prem Kumari’s convinced others to listen to us,” explains proudly.
Kalpana’s mother support group, which includes an Anganwadi worker, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) -, and a community woman for every 100 households, is a part of the Baby Friendly Community Health Initiative initiated in Lalitpur in 2006.
This initiative is a collaborative effort of the Department of Paediatrics, Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur, the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, and UNICEF in support to Lalitpur’s district administration.
The success of support groups like Kalpana’s is evident. Brijesh Kumari, a young mother of two, says that they rush to Kalpana even when they fall ill, and then go to see the doctor.
Apart from breastfeeding, Kalpana and the support group also provide counselling on nutritious food for pregnant and lactating mothers, complementary food for the baby after six months, and immunisation, among others.
“In addition, every Saturday we have special celebrations in the Anganwadi centre. Either it is a child’s first birthday, the news of a pregnancy, or the first solid food eating ceremony of a six-month child. The idea is to spread important messages through celebrations,” she states.