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How one woman transformed Indian villages


MAY 16 – 31, 1997

The Veerni Project

How one woman transformed Indian villages

By Ashali Varma

In  Pittawas, a remote village, 40 miles from the city of Jodhpur, women who have no access to clinics or hospitals are buying “safe delivery sets” for when they give birth. The sets, which cost less than 9 cents (4 rupees), consist of a clean razor blade, gauze, a strip of cord to tie the newborn’s umbilical cord and a bar of soap for the midwife. For another 4 rupees they can buy a plastic sheet, which is an important item because mothers in this area often give birth on the sand and have a high rate of infection. Free tetanus shots are also given to pregnant women.

Pittawas is off the beaten track for tourists and even government agencies have neglected it. But for the women of Pittawas, change came in the form of one woman whose passion for India translated into action. Jacqueline de Chollet started the Veerni Project in India in 1992. Veerni means “strong woman” in Hindi. Today, five years later and at a total cost of $90,000, 17 villages with 7,000 families now have access to reproductive health care, contraception, primary health care, immunizations, prenatal and postnatal care and treatment of infections.

In India, the maternal mortality rate is 500 per 100,000 live births per year, compared with 7.4 deaths per 100,000 births in the US. Village women rarely have their choice of  contraceptives,  and 85 percent of family planning consists of sterilization.

De Chollet who lives in London, New York and Jodhpur, describes how she became determined to do something for the women and young girls eking out an existence on the very edge of survival.

“In 1991 I was traveling in Rajasthan and I found myself in a remote village near the Pakistan border. It was far from the main road, off a deeply rutted dirt track. In a one-room house with an earthen floor, I met a woman weaving, with a baby in her arms. Her other children were outside. The girls were very thin. There was little food and almost no water-she had to walk hours each day to get it. She looked worn out,” de CholIet said.

“I told her I would buy the shawl she was weaving. But the moment I gave her the money, a man came in and took it. It stayed in my mind that the woman had managed to make something and sell it, but her gain had been taken away from her. I thought something must be done, something has to change, and it started from there,” de Chollet said.

De Chollet approached a local non-governmental organization, Parivar Seva Sanstha (PSS), which had been working in the field of reproductive health care for many years, and the Veerni project was born. All of the money de Chollet raises for it goes toward providing health services to families in the villages. “PSS manages the project and has done a wonderful job under extremely difficult circumstances,” de Chollet said.

“The women in these areas were very tradition-bound. They were not allowed to leave their villages,” she said, and were  kept secluded by the purdah system (veils covering the face). “At first we had to approach the men of the community and convince them of the benefits of the services we were going to provide, before they would let their women come to meetings to discuss their health and other problems,” she said.

The project has an office in Jodhpur and, to reach the villages, bought a mobile clinic in 1992 at the cost of 200,000 rupees ($6,000), de Chollet said. The van goes to two or three villages every day, travelling as much as 80 miles, over roads that vary from dusty and rutted in the winter to almost impassable during the rainy season. It is equipped with medical supplies and benches, and can handle simple medical procedures wherever they are needed. Two field educators, Jaspal and Shehjadi and Dr. Rashmi Mishra, provide the

services, which include checkups not only for women but for children and the men as well.

Free immunization, contraception and screening for tuberculosis are included in the project’s primary health care services, she said. Through videos, lectures and meetings, the field educators teach the women about cleanliness, hygiene, nutrition and the importance of taking care of themselves and spacing their pregnancies.

In addition, immunization camps and general health camps are also held to bring primary health care to the families.

“One of the biggest changes we have noticed in women’s reproductive health is the introduction of sanitary napkins. Previously the women and their daughters had to use rags, and there was a high incidence of reproductive tract infection,” de Chollet said. The Veerni project makes and sells sanitary napkins for 10 rupee (30 cents) for a package of 10, well below market prices and below the cost price. “Not only are women buying them for themselves but they also buy them for their daughters,” she said.

The project also provides Oral Dehydration Kits, which can be effective in saving the lives of children and babies suffering from diarrhea. “In fact the ORT kits are even used by women who suffer dehydration from working long the field under the hot sun,” de Chollet said.

To encourage women to take better care of their children, the Veerni Project organizes well-baby celebrations and gives prizes for babies who are clean, healthy and have had their immunization shots.  In the words of Jaspal, the Veerni field educator, in the last five years, “There have been so many changes.  Women are removing their veils to speak, their children are clean.  If their children are sick, they know where to get the right

tablet. Before, they believed that sickness was out of their hands.”

“What we are trying to do here is to create a demand for services and make those services available,” de Chollet said, “But how can women demand services when they don’t know that they exist? We are trying to create awareness.  In time the government will provide these services but we will be here for as long as it is necessary. Its a long-term commitment on our part,” said de Chollet.

The project’s plans include buying another mobile clinic and adding another 15 villages to the service area this year. So far the money for Veerni has come from the Global Foundation for Humanity, which was set up by de Chollet and her husband Robert Towbin and is funded by individuals. “Foundation funding would be very valuable,” de Chollet said, “but so far it has proved difficult.”