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India: Food is an election issue, say Deoghar’s women

Apr 20, 2014

In Jharkhand’s Sonaraithadi, women from diverse backgrounds are not just proving their merit as efficient homemakers but they have taken on the role of educators, writes Saadia Azim.

Deoghar: Thousands of women in the rural heartland of Deoghar, one of the most backward districts in Jharkhand and home to the Santhal tribals, have joined hands for a crusade against hunger and malnutrition in the region. Even as the election fever gripped their Sonaraithadi block – the region went to the polls on April 24 – these women diligently campaigned for the right to food and the promotion of the good nutrition practices in the community through door-to-door training and awareness sessions.

Shakuntala Devi, 58, a retired school teacher, heads one of eight clusters of all women self-help groups (SGHs) called Nayi Shakti that have been constituted in the area. “As the name suggests, Nayi Shakti draws on the power of women to fight malnutrition, hunger and other social evils. We have realised that in the rural areas people do not have access to quality education or information that can enable them to make the right choices for their proper development and growth. In this scenario, if we do not help ourselves, who will? That is why we have made freedom from hunger an issue in this General Election,” states the articulate leader.

In Sonaraithadi, women from diverse backgrounds are not just proving their merit as efficient homemakers but they have taken on the role of educators and social mentors. Like Shakuntala Devi, Putul, Sudama, Sunita and Kajran Bibi have joined these groups to make their respective villages hunger free. Explains Putul Devi, “We go around the village visiting homes to not just check if women are eating adequately but also to find out whether their children are getting the right of food. Besides this we hold regular trainings on understanding what good nutrition is all about.”

In Sonaraithadi block, where more than 90 per cent of the children are known to be protein deficient and energy undernourished, the enforcement of good practices has been a welcome intervention. With the support of Pravah, a non-government organisation that works with communities to help increase food availability in a sustainable manner, eight cluster group comprising 110 SHGs, across 50 villages have seriously taken on the task of transforming lives. This means that more than 2,000 women today in this region are advocating for the right to food.

Babita Sinha, Programme Manager, Pravah Jharkhand, explains, “We have got together with Welthungerhilfe, an international aid agency, to implement the Fight Hunger First Initiative (FHFI). As part of our interventions we are trying to push for the entitlement rights of the people. For instance, how and at what cost are communities entitled to get rice, wheat, sugar from the Public Distribution System (PDS) outlets. In addition, we are advocating the Right to Food Act that will enable every citizen to have adequate food.”

Even as they campaign for food in every home, these women’s groups are ensuring that the elected panchayat members are held accountable for the availability of rations. “Although the Antyodaya and Annapurna cards assure people of foodgrain from the ration shops, improving accessibility and distribution – which leave a lot to be desired – is what they are working towards,” adds Sinha. While the Antyodaya Anna Yojana guarantees 35 kilos of rice per month at the highly subsidised rate of Rs 3 per kilo to below poverty line (BPL) families, under the Annapurna scheme 10 kilos of rice are distributed free of cost to old, indigent citizens of 65 years and more.

According to Sinha, Pravah’s experience of working with the women of Sonaraithadi is more proof that when it comes to addressing issues of undernutrition, hunger and access to food, women-led community initiatives have multiple benefits. First, it empowers these otherwise forgotten homemakers to take on leadership roles and, second, it has ensured sustainability, since the women are committed and effective change agents.

Ever since the initiative began in mid-2012, there has been a transformation in food consumption patterns of the families here. This has largely been attributed to the ‘positive deviance home sessions’ and sustained nutrition counselling by women trained by the clusters. A positive deviance nutrition programme is a home- and neighbourhood-based model created to improve the indicators for children who are at risk of protein and energy malnutrition. According to this approach, the food habits of well-nourished children from poor families are observed and documented. These are then replicated among those in the community with malnourished children.

The ‘positive deviance home sessions’, spearheaded by the local women, have indeed proved effective in Sonaraithadi, bringing about a remarkable difference in the eating and growth patterns of the children, especially those belonging to the Santhal tribe and other marginalised communities. In fact, unprecedented weight gain has been noted among 90 per cent of the cases registered under the FHFI project in the district.

Rina Devi, from Bisakh village, became a nutrition counsellor after her cluster leader motivated her to join the movement in 2012. At the time her only objective was to secure the good health of her three children. Now she is concerned about the well-being of the children of the entire community. Rina talks to mothers about serving three proper meals every day complete with green vegetables, lentils and fruit. She has also been consistently fighting the blackmarketing of foodgrain at her local ration shop, which incidentally caters to six villages in the area, to make sure that the other 20 families in Bisakh village are not cheated of their share of rice and wheat every month. As Rina shares, “Earlier, it was very difficult to procure goods from the ration shop. Now as a group we can at least ensure that everyone gets what they are entitled to. Gradually, the elected panchayat members too have come to support our efforts.”

Apart from awareness building and monitoring of the food schemes as part of the FHFI, the women’s clusters have taken on the responsibility of promoting the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) that promises 100 days of work to every family by advocating equal opportunities for women. Sudama Devi, 52, from Simra village, who is one of the eight cluster leaders of Nayi Shakti and a nutrition counsellor, makes an astute observation, “There are many factors that are linked to our fight against malnutrition and ill health. Having fair access to livelihood is one of them. If there is no work there will be no money in the house. If there is no money, there will be no food and it will naturally affect the growth, development, skills and efficiency of the people here.”

Sudama’s friend and fellow cluster head from Sabejor village, Kiron Devi, encapsulates all the hard work the women have been doing and what they have managed to achieve so far, in this way, “A community cannot develop if its people do not stand up and help themselves. It is through the initiative of the local women that we have collectively overcome the challenges of malnutrition that we had lived with all these years.”

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