New Delhi: While pursuing PhD in Australia, Monalisa Padhee, a 31-year-old medical researcher from Sambalpur, Odisha got a chance to work on a project on mother’s nutrition and its impact during pregnancy and diseases in babies. She soon realised that this project was urgently needed in most rural parts of India as well. So in 2016, after completing her PhD, she took it upon herself to return to India on a rural development fellowship and work on issues related to malnutrition at grassroots level. She started working in Rajasthan by educating women and helping them to fight malnutrition and anaemia, which is widely prevalent among them. Talking to NDTV about her journey Monalisa said,
After graduating in biotechnology, I moved to Australia for higher studies where I was working in a very laboratory oriented set-up. There I was studying about how the nutrition in mother, not during pregnancy but before pregnancy impacts the mother as well as the foetus. The results I found during lab studies and while doing my secondary literature review motivated me to apply my learning in enhancing the public health sector. I felt that the work I was doing in Australia was so much needed in India. I applied for and got the State Bank of India fellowship for rural development which supported me to work with a grassroots organisation.
In India, Monalisa decided to work with Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, a community based organisation that has been working on developing skills of rural women for the last 40 years. The objective of the organisation is to help women become self-independent and ‘change agent’ who then return to their villages to bring the learning to their community. She said,
During my field studies, I realised that health issues in villages are a huge problem. There was so much silence among women regarding their own health. I realised many women do not even know about the basics of breastfeeding to their newborns and why it is so important. Not just this, I was able to see a bigger picture that nutrition was inter-connected with various other aspects of the life of women and their families including their financial dependence.
What started as a voluntary work soon turned into a journey where she has become a programme head of Women Wellness Initiative, Enriche at Barefoot College and is leading a group of master trainers who are helping educate rural women from 15 states on living a better life. Monalisa shared,
Initially, it was not easy. My family wanted me to pursue post-doctorate and then have a job as a college professor but I wanted to work at the grassroots. It was only after a lot of discussion that I was able to convince my parents and got their support.
By Training Community Women, Monalisa And Her Team Has Built An Army Of Crusaders At Village Level
To provide a holistic understanding of nourishment to women, Monalisa designed a curriculum called ‘Women Wellness Curriculum’ that is based on nutrition and its health aspects, menstrual and reproductive health. The curriculum uses simple, practical and interactive tools like group discussions, pictures, infographics, videos and games that are more comprehensible for semi/illiterate women. In addition, they try to ensure A timely and correct diagnosis of anaemia among women and using traditional recipes to tackle it. Monalisa adds,
Our approach is simple, we want to train every woman in India so that they become nutrition champions within their communities and in return break the intergenerational cycle of a vicious health crisis. Most of our women are from age 15 to age 60 and we emphasize the need for women to take care of the nutritional needs not only during pregnancy but throughout.
According to Monalisa, the content of the curriculum includes the following:
- Identifying the correct symptoms of anaemia coupled with addressing any myths related to anaemia existing in the community
- Providing information on diagnosis like where the women can get the diagnosis, the importance of timely diagnosis
- Solutions such as the inclusion of green leafy vegetables and the need of Vitamin C rich food for proper absorption of iron and also motivating them to avoid tea/ coffee while overcoming anaemia
- Simple analogies such as ‘tricolour plate’ which encourages women to consume diversified meals within budget by focusing on locally available food
- Demystification of the current fad towards junk food
- Games and infographics to help women learn about Hygiene with an emphasis on handwashing, use of toilets as well as proper handling of food and water
- Information about menstrual health that covers the entire process from changes during adolescence to the process of reproduction and why it becomes all the more important to take care of nutritional needs during and after adolescence
- Video on health rights: a relatable rural story which uses positive messaging to highlight the health rights of women, body autonomy, nutritional needs and the roles and responsibilities of family members and community health workers.
Since 2016, Monalisa and her team have used this curriculum to train over 250 women from 12 states across the country.
Apart from this, she is also working on a project that calls pregnant and lactating mother on their or a family member’s phone to provide information regarding nutrition, antenatal check-ups and immunisation. Under this project, they have reached out to about 1,000 women in two districts of Rajasthan.
Laxmi Sharma, a 33-year-old resident of Tilonia who was initially trained in tailoring at the Barefoot College, was then trained on nutrition and has now become a community trainer of the ‘Women Wellness’ curriculum. Laxmi says,
Today I know that symptoms of iron deficiency can be identified by looking at eyes, tongue and nails. The curriculum has also helped me understand the importance of eating food that has lots of vitamins and micro-nutrients.
She further said, the simple method is to keep at least three colours in the plate. She said,
Instead of taking iron tablets, it is better to eat iron-rich food. But one can have an iron tablet if the deficiency is high. We encourage women to cook in iron utensils as it will ensure the iron level of the food is maintained.
Laxmi, who is a mother of two boys (12 years and 10 years), could not study after Class VIII as her family could not afford it but now she feels empowered with the knowledge she has gained through this curriculum to lead a healthy life and is very happy that she is able to pass on this knowledge to other women of her community. She says,
Taking workshops for women in my community has given me a sense of confidence and empowerment. I feel that I am able to make my life worthy by not only giving my own family a healthy life but also helping other women to do the same.
Also Read: 5 Foods To Eliminate Iron Deficiency Anaemia
‘Super 5’, A Social Enterprise To Not Only Make Them Healthier But Also Financially Independent
In her work towards eradicating malnutrition among women, Monalisa was joined by her colleague Bidyapathi Ray, a Chemical Engineer and an aspiring social entrepreneur, who has revived a traditional recipe for a mixture that fulfils the nutritional needs of children and women. Called ‘Super 5’ more famous as ‘Amrit Churan’ among rural women is made from five ingredients: sesame seeds, bengal grams, wheat, peanuts and jaggery. While sharing his motivation behind preparing the mix of superfoods, Bidyapathi tells NDTV,
A few years back when I started working in the rural development sector, it was the first time in my life that I visited a village. I got a chance to roam around in various villages. It was then that I got to know about the vicious problem of anaemia that the rural women were trapped in! The most worrying thing was that many pregnant women even in their third trimester of pregnancy were at a haemoglobin level that was life-threatening to both mother and baby. So we worked on producing something that can help in filling this gap. This mixture had been formulated with an aim to provide a balanced mix of carbohydrates, protein, iron, calcium and magnesium, keeping in mind the macro and micronutrient requirements.
Bidyapathi’s Super 5 initiative soon turned into a social enterprise called B.Barefoot Nutrition Enterprise which became a source of livelihood to more than 15 community members. These women are not only becoming financially independent but are also acting as messengers as they start the dialogue among the rural women especially the mothers-in-law and make them aware about the anaemia and the importance of a balanced, nutritious diet. One such woman is Dhapu Kaki, 53-year-old who shared with NDTV,
The government provides iron tablets to pregnant women but they don’t take it because of the unpleasant taste and reactions in the body. Therefore, I tell them to take ‘Super Five’ powder which can fulfil their nutrition and iron needs to a large extent. We have also reached out to 3500 odd children in schools and Balwadis in Tilonia and nearby villages every day in the last three years.
She further says that Super Five is not only rich in nutrition but also appeals to the taste of buds and is very cost-effective.
According to Bidyapathi, for distribution, we made a simple packaging with clearly written instructions on the dosage – 25 grams per day to children below the age of 6 years and 50 grams to older children and women. It is easily available with community members involved in distribution at a price of Rs. 210 per kilo. He further said that children and women who take Super 5 are checked for haemoglobin levels, height and weight regularly and a substantial improvement has been observed.
While working among the people from marginal communities in the rural areas, for Monalisa and Bidyapathi, improved haemoglobin levels and increased weight is a key milestone. Going forward, they intend to reach out to more women across the country and equip them with the knowledge to prepare the Super 5 concoction themselves and develop a livelihood from it. They are hopeful that more and more people in rural areas especially women will leave their dependence on the quick fix diet of ‘pickle and roti and adopt a more nutritious and balanced diet.