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India: visit to the Anganwadi

I saw, and met a cow today. Technically it was a buffalo, but it was very exciting. We stopped at the road side to buy fruit from this amazing stall, that had such an array of fruit and veg, that I didn’t recognise most of it. But we had watermelon, and there was the buffalo, eating all the rotting stuff, that had been discarded next to the stall. So we fed it the rinds of the melon and I stroked it. But then I looked again and noticed an old woman, with her basket, who was also looking through all the rotting stuff to find food to eat.

We visited a rural Anganwadi today, a government-sponsored centre providing healthcare and other services to children and mothers. We were greeted with garlands and they put a bindi ( a red forhead decoration) on our foreheads, and there was a drummer from the village and all the children came to greet us. Even the chief man, the head of the local council had come, which was a sign of just how proud the community is of the centre, and rightly so.

There was an Anganwadi here before, but because it was poorly staffed and poorly maintained, and no one really cared about the services, it fell into disuse. Save the Children, working with the community, have had it reopened, and staffed and running all sorts of education programmes which will help it have a huge impact on the lives of these people.

My impression today, was that here there it is not poverty of money, but poverty of knowledge. There seemed to be reasonably nice homes, there was enough money to buy food and essentials, but they didn’t necessarily know what they should be feeding their children. And in a village of 900 people there was one toilet! And it too had fallen into disuse! But why have a toilet, when you can dump your waste in the field. Why spend all that money? How can you be expected to have any understanding or knowledge of how disease is spread unless someone gives you that information? How do you know your village is entitled to free health care if noone tells you, or tells you that there is a grant available from the government to improve the sanitation? Or explains the importance of immunisation, or that your baby should be a lot bigger for their age? So first you need to have the knowledge and then you need the empowerment, and this is what save the children is doing here.

Also, its about re-educating people on traditions that could prove dangerous for children’s health. If a woman gives birth early in the morning say, she will not give it its first feed until the moon comes out. It is thought to be good luck to have the stars shining on the baby. And also you need certain people to be in attendance for that. They still give the baby honey or sugar cane here too, and the person that gives that is the one you would like the child to grow up like.

They have created an elected council from the village and also a health and sanitation committee — 6 men and 6 women — who are all respected in their village and understand why preschool education is important, why we need to immunize, monitor and feed pregnant mothers, give extra nutrition to breast feeding mothers, give supplementary food to 6 month olds etc,

The next step: empowerment. The council, supported by Save the Children, wrote a letter to the government requesting the reopening of the anganwadi. And they received a grant to do this. They cleared it of rubble as a community, and cleaned it. Save the Children has recruited staff, trained, monitored, supported and educated them.

So now the village has a preschool (3 to 6 year olds) which is slowly gaining support, with a trained teacher. This is of huge benefit, as not only is it giving a basic education and will encourage the children to go on to primary school, but it provides 2 meals a day for the kids and a safe haven. In this village, usually both parents work: the women usually are farming in the fields, so the children are unsupervised with the younger ones looked after by older siblings. And now for most of the day , 6 days a week, the 3 to 6 year olds at least have somewhere to go, and are cared for. Only 12 days ago one of the children had drowned in the village well.

There is also a service to monitor pregnant women, and educate them about their own health, give them folic acid, iron etc and encourage them to give birth in a medical facility, which is much safer for them.

There is a service for breast feeding mothers, to monitor the babies health, and ensure the mother starts giving the baby food after 6 months, not just milk and water, as is the custom. And they give  supplementary food for free. It is free anyway, provided by the government, but if you don’t know you can have it, or have any way of getting it, that’s not much use!
Childen under the age of five are monitored and if malnourished they also receive supplementary food.

Monthly immunisation sessions are held. When the medical facility was closed the village had 0% immunisation rates which have risen to 20%, and will continue to rise. The support worker visits every households encouraging all the villagers to use the service, and educating them about good health practises.

I’m finding it really hard to explain the enormity of this ANGANWADI, and how it is not just saving lives, but transforming the lives of the whole village, and this wouldn’t have happened without us,  Save the Children. And now the village has this and can see all the benefits, it will not lapse again. They will demand their right to health care, and sanitation and demand the government fulfil their role. So gradually Save the Children will take less of a hand, and the project will be self sustaining. And this is going on in lots of villages…

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