"Who is more intelligent—a woman or a rat?" "A rat," they would say, and they were talking about themselves.
This was how women of the Untouchable caste (now called Dalits) in India had been trained to see themselves, but some were being trained to see themselves very differently – as village healthcare workers. These women had been shunned since birth by those around them and never allowed to even pump water from the village well because their touch was “poison” to higher caste people. But now, when two of these transformed women, Sarubai Salve and Babai Sathe, move through their village, people gather around them. They are no longer poison. In fact, Sathe has been elected the leader—or sarpanch—of her village, Jawalke.
How could such an amazing social transformation take place? Through the support of a program that sees such women as a means to not only transform the crushing lives of these Dalit women but to transform rural health care in India. Salve and Sathe are not doctors or even nurses. They have very little equipment, but they are responsible for the health of Jawalke residents. They see pregnant women, deliver babies, and then check up on mother and infant. They visit old people, take blood pressure, and check on people cured of leprosy. Life is much better in Jawalke and that is because of women like Salve.
"When I started, the children all had scabies and there was filth everywhere," Salve says. Small kids used to die. Pregnant women died during and after delivery. Poor sanitation led to malaria and diarrheal diseases. Children went unvaccinated. Leprosy and tuberculosis were common. Today these problems are almost non-existent, but the turn-around has not been quick or easy.
Thirty-eight years after the Jamhhed program began training Dalit women as care givers there are 300 villages that benefit from their dedication. In villages that have these Dalit angels half as many infants die and, even though half of all Indian children under age three are malnourished, in Jamkhed villages there are not enough cases to record. But the truly amazing thing about this social (r)evolution is that the changes go way beyond health issues.
Many of the Dalit women who became care givers were illiterate and destitute. As Untouchables, they were non-persons, not even allowed to wear shoes because higher caste people could not step on their footprint, and never allowed to enter a building or home. Many had been married at ages ranging from two-and-a-half to ten and then abandoned by their husbands. So their first step was to transform themselves beginning with two weeks of training on Jamkhed’s campus that gave them pride and confidence in addition to basic technical knowledge. Another secret to their on-going success is the network of continuing support they receive from weekly contact with each other for discussion and new training.
All Jamhked villages now have clean water and many have pumps in every backyard, most villagers have small gardens to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and in an area that was once treeless villagers have planted millions of new trees. Sathe and Salve have organized eight women’s groups to make these changes happen in Jawalke, and their latest project is toilets for every house.
Even magically placing a doctor in every village wouldn’t have created these remarkable social improvements because as Raj Arole, co-founder of the program, says, "Doctors promote medical care because that's where the money is. We promote health." Dalit women who are Jamhked workers teach their neighbors about breast-feeding and good nutrition and hygiene. They help villages create systems for clean water and sanitation. Most importantly, they are culture-changing, living proof against the superstition and stigma that discriminates against women and low-caste people.
"When I started, I had no support from anyone, no education, no money," said Sathe. "I was like a stone with no soul. When I came here they gave me shape, life. I learned courage and boldness. I became a human being." Through women who were once degraded and tormented as Untouchables all the women of these villages see there is a better life for them. And now they know they ALL have the power to demand it and create it. (1)
(1) See National Geographic Magazine, Tina Rosenberg, @ http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2008/12/community-doctors/rosenberg-text