“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Aditi writes about how social innovation in Kashmiris begins (and possibly ends) with Kashmiri women

(Ms. Aditi Bhaduri’s bio sketch is available from the webmaster.)

Providing More Than Their Means

It was just another mundane day for Munira Manzoor until a knock on the door changed her life. That moment marked her journey of transformation — from being a school drop-out to a respected paramedic in her village of Zuhama, in Kashmir’s Budgam district.

The year was 1997. The Valley was in the throes of an armed insurgency and the healthcare system, especially in the remote areas, was in a shambles. “Most of the doctors, who were from the minority Hindu community, had fled Kashmir, and both the government and private healthcare facilities were in poor condition. Even the treatment of small injuries was not possible, as paramedics were too scared to step out. This severely affected women, particularly pregnant women. The nearest maternity home was in Lal Ded Hospital, Srinagar, and for people in remote areas, it took a long time to reach the hospital as we had to stop regularly at army check posts,” recalls Munira, who is around 35 years old.

This crisis in healthcare deeply disturbed Dr Ali Mohamed Mir, a retired IAS officer. He wanted to do something to ease this problem. So he collaborated with the J&K Voluntary Health and Development Association (J&K VHDA) and decided to reach out to the worst-affected villages. Ten villages in Budgam, seven in Pulwama and five in Khansaab, a block near the border, were adopted. In the beginning, the J&K VHDA organised out-patient departments (OPD) for administering first-aid and other treatments. But it was observed that women were very reluctant to get themselves treated by male doctors and paramedics. That’s when they decided that if the healthcare needs of the Valley women were to be met they needed to build a team of local women paramedics.

So Mir himself went from door-to-door in the villages, asking women and girls to volunteer. That’s how Munira suddenly found herself undergoing training in basic healthcare, natal-care, and later even in post-trauma counselling. While the J&K VHDA conducted the OPDs, they simultaneously trained the women. As a Class IX drop-out, Munira had never thought that she would one day be able to make such a valuable contribution to her community, but when Mir presented her with the opportunity she instantly agreed. “I learnt about anti-natal and post-natal care. I underwent training – gradually – and began by going from home to home and finding out and registering pregnant women,” she recalls. She was also taught how to talk to women about basic healthcare, nutrition and even tri-semester care.

Come Out in Force

But all this was not easy. In the shadow of militancy, Munira undertook this work at great personal risk. As did Haseena Begum and, later, Sakeena Shafi, Safeena, and many others. According to these women, although they felt insecure, they were able to undergo the training and, later, help the local women because care-giving was considered non-political work. Adds Mir’s daughter, Ezabar Ali, who conducts the training sessions, “To make our work transparent, we conducted all our meetings in the open so that the entire village would know what the volunteers were doing.”

Yet, despite the open attitude adopted not only by Ali and her team but the volunteers as well, they faced a lot of opposition when the time came to step into the homes of friends and neighbours. Recalls Sakeena of Gundi Maqsood village, “Initially, people laughed at me. They would poke fun by saying ‘Look, the doctor has come.’” She had just passed Class X when she saw her first J&K VHDA medical camp and decided to undergo paramedic training.

At first it was quite a frustrating experience and she felt hurt when people mocked her. But that did not deter her from her mission. Attitudes gradually began to change as people understood the benefits of such an intervention.

Sakeena has since become irreplaceable for the pregnant women in her village, seeing that she has become quite an expert advisor when it comes to anti-natal and post-natal care. She also talks to them about family planning and occasionally helps train other volunteers as well. Dais, or traditional birth attendants, is one such category of people who have received training in basic hygiene – like using hot water and clean sheets while delivering babies. The use of medical kits has also been explained to them.

Safeena, from Zuhama village, who has been working as a volunteer for the last five years, is thrilled by the fact that she can help people. Inspired by Munira to undergo training she has been particularly effective in reaching out to women on the brink of nervous breakdowns.

More Than Just a Helping Hand

Trauma counselling and mental healthcare have emerged as big issues in Kashmir. Scores of mothers whose sons have disappeared or been killed by militants or security agencies, have suffered great trauma. Wives have had husbands remaining untraceable for years. Everyday they find themselves trying to cope with the pressures of loneliness and uncertainty. Today, although the level of violence has come down, unemployment and other social problems have given rise to domestic violence in a big way and this in turn is a significant factor in undermining the mental well-being of women and girls.

Now, in volunteer-counsellors like Safeena, patients find a sympathetic ear. Seventy-year-old Magli, who lost a young son to militants, has someone with whom she can converse. Although initially Magli resisted the idea of talking to a stranger, she slowly opened up.

But while people have benefited from these enterprising volunteers, the women too have greatly gained from the experience. Besides the increased confidence and respect they now command within their own homes and communities, Munira says that she and her colleagues have become more aware of women’s health needs as well as their rights. “We had no idea about immunisation and we learnt of its importance during the training. Young girls reaching puberty here had little inkling about personal hygiene but now they do,” she elaborates.

Understanding domestic violence also proved to be an eye-opener. The rise of domestic violence has been specifically connected to the series of hartals and bandhs Kashmir has been witnessing since 2008. Since most of these bandhs are called by separatists who are accountable to no one, people are afraid to violate them. “Hartals lead to loss of wages and many of our men are daily wage earners,” reveals Munira, adding, “Such situations increase the frustration in the men folk and they give vent to it by attacking their wives, and sometimes even their children,” analyses Munira.

Today there are over 50 active women health volunteers in Budgam, Pulwama, Baramullah and Srinagar. Explains Safeena, “Earlier, most families sent only their sons to school. But after seeing our work they have also begun to pay attention to their daughters. They can see that girls too can play a role in the development of families and the community.”