‘I Will Not Let Them Die’
‘I Will Not Let Them Die’
Every time I look at my 2-month-old, I remember that horrifying night. I shiver in fear as to what could have happened to me and my baby if Anila had not brought us to the primary health center on time. Anila is our ASHA, which is short for accredited social health activist, but the word literally means “hope” in our language. As part of the government health department, Anila is responsible for meeting pregnant women and young mothers to advise them on maternal and child health. She became an ASHA a couple of years back. She was a young bride at the time, bright and educated – much more than any of us – and she wanted to work. I knew Anila would do well, but I had no idea then how much this young girl would influence my life!
My husband, Nanki Sada, is a very religious person. He had been introduced to “Baba,” the village faith healer –although I don’t call him one now – by his mother when he was very young. Poor, uneducated and jobless, Nanki would believe in anyone. When I married into the family, I had to carry on the traditions set by my mother-in-law. I was never supposed to question the powers of the faith healer.
Our tola (village) is on the outskirts of Shahjadapur village in Sarairanjan block, Samastipur district. About 30 families live in this tola and belong to the Musahar caste. Eight people, including my in-laws, share our home, which has two, dimly lit rooms. Baba lives about half a mile away. After two years of marriage, I had been unable to conceive, and everyone was worried. Here, the girls traditionally have their first baby almost immediately after marriage, although I was hardly 17 at that time. So, when people got worried about my fertility, the first thing they did was take me to see Baba. It was the first time I stepped out of the house to meet anyone since our wedding.
I learned that Domi Mahto was a self-proclaimed Baba and had been living in the village from the past seven years. He had built an impressive house for himself, even though he did not have any family. At first, I was hesitant to talk to him about such a private matter as my difficulty to conceive. But we continued to see Baba again and again, to no avail. A neighbor suggested that I should see a lady doctor in Samastipur, but my husband was adamant. He said, “If Baba is not able to do anything, this is our fate. Why do we need to run after doctors and waste our money?”As if we did not spend money on Baba! I sometimes felt Baba had put a spell on my husband to make him believe in all his superstitions.
After 12 years of prayers and patience, I miraculously conceived. Our happiness knew no bounds. I was finally to be free from the burden of being infertile. (Of course, all the questioning of fertility had been on me – not my husband!) I planned to consult a doctor, as I wanted to be very careful with the baby. It was so precious to me! But, as the news of my pregnancy spread like fire, we were summoned to Baba. He claimed that because I had gotten pregnant by his miracle, we would have to do what he said. I was perplexed and angry, but I could not do anything. He did not want us to see any doctor, and he insisted that the baby would be safely delivered at home.
Little did we know that this man who called himself Baba was doing business with a quack in the village, taking money from poor, uneducated people.
Months passed away in anxiety over my baby. Anila visited me several times at home and persuaded me to take injections and medicines, which I got from Nurse Didi. I had to hide everything from my husband, but I trusted Anila. She was patient with me and would explain about care during pregnancy and after the birth of the baby. She also warned me about complications that might happen. I would get scared hearing about them, so sometimes I would drive her away. But on her persuasion, I got some things ready for an emergency birth, including money. It was definitely a wonderful idea to do so.
I used to be surprised about Anila’s knowledge, as she was young like me. She said that she had learned all of these “good things” in her health sub-center meetings facilitated by CARE India. “They do meetings with us every month and teach us how to work in a better manner,” Anila said. “All I have learned about pregnancy and childbirth is through these meetings. I now feel confident to share my knowledge with you all.”
She told me CARE India was trying to bring in proper drugs and equipment and also training the hospital staff in child and maternal health. I felt bad that I was not allowed to deliver at the hospital.
It was midnight when I had my first pain. It was like lightning hitting me. I cried aloud. On contacting Baba, he instructed us to call Ranju Mahto, the quack in the village, who gave me some medicines and put in an IV drip – and took 2,000 rupees from us. I was in bed, with watery discharge all over, but the delivery still did not happen.
The next day, I was visited by Anila, who was horrified to see my condition. Even though our neighbors had been telling my husband all night to take me to the hospital, he would not budge –his faith in Baba was too strong. When Anila saw the situation, she took bold action. First, she threatened to call the police if my husband did not take me to a hospital. Then, she assured my family that if anything happened to the baby in the hospital, she would take responsibility for it.
Finally, my mother-in-law gave the nod – maybe because she had delivered eight children or her own, she could not bear to see me in such pain. She arranged for a car and rushed us to the hospital in Sarairanjan. The nurse was scared to admit me at first because of my condition, but Anila persuaded her to help me. I had my baby boy almost immediately after arriving at the hospital. But he did not cry.
“He is too weak,” the nurse who delivered him told us. “He might not survive.” Anila requested that the nurse clean the baby’s nose and mouth, and then put him in a machine that would keep him warm. Anila was determined to save him. After about 10 minutes, the baby started crying and seemed to improve. The nurse handed the baby to us, saying that he was underweight and needed extra care. Anila turned toward my husband and said, “If Baba was so powerful, why couldn’t he predict that the baby would be born weak?” This is when my husband finally came out of the darkness.
Anila is like a lighthouse for us. Now, both my husband and I rush to her whenever we need advice or help. Our baby is healthy and active today. Had Anila not supported us with her knowledge, skills and common sense, we could have never been this happy.
Many such confident and smiling ASHAs are being trained by CARE India’s project called Bihar Technical Support Unit, which is working hand-in-hand with the government to train their grassroots-level workers to confidently handle complications in the field to reduce maternal and child mortality. Not only are these wonderful women being empowered themselves, but they also are helping other women in their community come out of the darkness of superstitions into the light of a healthy life.