William Blake once said “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”

These lines resonate with me as I write about my recent journey with Save the Children India that led me to the outskirts of Jaipur (the pink city) to a peri-urban town of Tonk in the state of Rajasthan.

Tonk is situated around 100kms (about 63miles) to the south of Jaipur and just to give you an idea, in 2011, the population of Tonk was similar to the population of Hawaii.

Tonk is not a poor or extremely poverty ridden area. Here you will find all sorts of facilities like shops, local businesses, regular electrical and water supply, institutions imparting health and education. In all, it is very well connected to the urban landscape.

This is not one of the most remote areas and yet this is the area that has been classified as one of the country’s most backward districts.

Little did I know that our car journey through fabulous roads, picturesque landscapes, a mind full of thoughts and a slight detour; would completely alter my perception.

 

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen! Today we will talk about health

Our first stop was at a community radio station inside the expansive Banasthali University – a women’s only institution - which offers courses ranging from primary education to PhD.

Here we met with a bunch of enthusiastic radio jockeys and programmers who come together to communicate, educate and elaborate on various practices promoting better health, education and sanitation practices within their community.

The team at 90.4 Aapno Radio (our radio) has been consistently spreading awareness and knowledge at a community level by advocating against certain age-old notions that contribute to ill practices amongst the residents.

Some of the stories that came out during our interaction were of mothers discarding the colostrum as they think it’s impure or of how a family discontinued the DPT vaccination program just because the child developed fever which is a common and minor side-effect of the vaccination.

 

Volunteering for upliftment

Upon reaching our office in Tonk district, we met with the CHV’s (Community Health Volunteers) who work with the government health workers in increasing community health standards. These energetic and fearless ladies have broken patriarchal bounds and are united in ideology –

-  No child should be born at home

-  No marriage before the age of 18

-  All mothers should complete the entire immunization schedule

-  No Female Feticide

 

Religion meets science

Tonk is a Muslim dominated region and the community relies on the teaching and guidance of their religious leaders.

We met the local religious leaders who have been working with Save the Children and are the pillars of our program outreach. The leaders have been advising the community members against child marriage, home child deliveries, colostrum discarding and for better education, gender equality and building toilets.

During the interaction they told us about an age-old belief regarding polio immunization and that it causes impotency in male children because of which the parents would not get the vaccine. The community has been successful in eradicating that belief, exemplified by the fact that India was declared polio free by WHO in 2014.

 

 Breathing in toxins for an under-paid living

Most of the women in Tonk make bidis (local cigarettes) - we had the opportunity of meeting 22-year-old Banno* who has been in the trade for the past 12 years. She makes about 500 pieces a day and makes Rs 40-50 a day (59-75cents per day)

She has been breathing in tobacco leaves every day for the last 12 years and it is a common practice for the girl child of the house to help the mother by folding in the bidi and eventually making the complete pieces herself.

Most women like Banno* and their daughters stay at home while the men of the house toil outside in the extreme heat as laborers or farmers. Due to the raising awareness levels and upliftment through the project, these ladies are now focusing on education and wish for a better and healthier life for their daughters.

 

Achieving succes through perseverance

It is through the community-led advocacy, supported by local organisations and NGO’s like Save the Children that a new and fully equipped Mother and Child Healthcare facility was launched in Tonk.

The facility also houses a Palna Grah where families can come and leave their unwanted child, ring a bell and walk away while leaving the child under the care of the government. This scheme has been launched to avoid cases of infants being abandoned, mistreated or killed.

 

And the youth awakens!

Our last meeting was with a group of young and confident girls who have been trained by the CHV’s as ambassadors to increase youth awareness on social issues. It is very common for young unmarried girls to not get education and live under strict domestic rules but through the work of our CHV’s these girls were allowed to study further and now protect others like themselves from injustice.  

These girls are united in their demand for a better future and many of them have completed their primary education or gained university degrees through the assistance given by the Save the Children project.

These girls are out there spreading awareness on gender discrimination, access to education and even intervening when their own group members are forced into child marriage. 

 

My own reflections

I took this picture during the ride back to Jaipur through the constantly changing sunlight and shade. And there it was, I had the outcome of the entire journey summarized in one word - RESILIENCE

All the individuals we met were resilient in nature and spirit. They have overcome tough odds, illogical notions, and age-old practices to emerge victorious & achieve great results in their education, health and family life.

Many might wonder what a community building/awareness based project delivers and to them I have a clear answer.

I saw in the eyes of the courageous women who have gone from being forced to stay inside their home to being behind a microphone, girls going from their own child marriage to stopping the marriage of other adolescent girls and young girls going from not being able to complete school to getting masters degrees. The answer is Confidence.

That is what is Save the Children is building & that is what we as a society should to focus on.

Every Last Child should be empowered

Every Last Child should be encouraged

Every Last Child should be confident