Parmaben Sava: Bringing health care to Kutchi women Print E-mail
via the collective Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan - as it happens, not the 2005 Nobel, but women's hopes spring eternal for 2006! - Lynette

GENDER

Treating women's health

SMITA JAIN
Without formal education and facing great odds, Parmaben has succeeded in her mission to bring healthcare to Kutchi women.

Pioneering work: Parmaben's activities have impacted the lives of women in her community. Photo: Gauri Gill

HER earlobes hang almost touching her neck. Thick, white bangles cover her forearms; her richly woven kanjaria and audni speak of her desert-home. She has never had any formal education, and has only recently learned to write her name.

Yet Parmaben Sava has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her pioneering work in bringing health care to Kutchi women through the collective Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS).

A Dalit by birth, Parmaben married into a family in the Kutchi village of Jam Kunuriya (near Bhuj). Following the tradition of her grandmother and mother, she served the community as a dai ben (a midwife) and was well known for her skill and care.

First encounters
She first encountered KMVS when the founders — Lata Sachde, Alka Jani and Sushma Iyengar — came to her village in 1988. She was intrigued by these women from the city who were camping outside their homes under the harsh desert sun, and speaking to women about forming a collective that would work for their well being. They identified Parmaben's unique talent in health care, and encouraged her to join the collective. Parmaben sought her husband's permission to attend the meetings, but met with severe resistance from the community. Despite this, she persevered.

Today, she is one of the pillars from which KMVS derives its strength. She has been successful in training a network of over 2,000 skilled midwives and conducts regular camps on reproductive rights, health and family planning across villages in western Kutch. She has delivered over 1,000 babies, and was instrumental in beginning the first clinic for women in Khavda.

She has inspired people around her; over 40 of her own relations hold positions of leadership in KMVS. Her grandson, a coordinator with KMVS, says, "Our family has learnt how to work from my grandmother. We realise that by following our heart and working according to our principles, only good will come — good for society and good for us. But we realise that she has struggled a lot to reach this point."

Parmaben smiles wryly thinking back to those years. "I had to fight many battles, and faced many struggles. My husband would always ask why I thought I could go out alone. It was a struggle to make him understand. I also had to bear the insults of society, but I tried to pay no heed to it and thought of them as barking dogs with no bite."

What kept her going, despite the negativity around her? "I had a deep understanding of the health problems of women from my community and wanted to uplift them. I realised that it was my duty to do it, even if I had to struggle. To gain something, you also have to lose something."

Before KMVS brought in its health initiatives, Parmaben says, the condition of women in the villages of western Kutch was deplorable. The social mores of Muslims and Harijans — two communities that dominate this region — dictated restricted roles and positions for women. Healthcare for women was almost entirely neglected and not believed to be important. Women's health-related problems were treated in a crude manner or left untreated. "If a serious health complication arose, the woman would be taken by foot to the nearby town (Khavda). It was not uncommon for the woman or the baby — or both — to die during the journey."

In Khavda, there was a general government hospital, but it was always poorly equipped and under-staffed. Besides, the doctors were always male. "Women, especially from our communities, feel embarrassed to speak about gynaecological problems with the doctor. Also, the men did not even understand the conditions we faced." In those early days, a clinic only for women seemed like a far-flung hope.

Yet in early 2005, after many battles with the Government, KMVS opened a women's health clinic in Khavda. "I had always dreamed of a health clinic for women," says Parmaben, "and now I am so happy that it is a reality."

Due to the efforts of leaders such as Parmaben in educating rural women about reproductive rights and training women in health care, thousands of women avail of KMVS resources in their villages and at the clinic.

Success
She has noticed that nearly all women from the region come to the clinic for their deliveries. Women have also been showing a greater degree of awareness and confidence in voicing their right to health care. Women across the villages look up to Parmaben as their doctor; indeed, due to her wealth of experience, she has often proved to be more effective than a doctor.

The previous week, Parmaben says, a woman in the final stages of her 10th pregnancy arrived at the clinic. Her baby was lodged dangerously in the side of her stomach.

She had approached the doctor at the government hospital, but he had refused to treat her on the grounds that the situation was too complicated and had directed her to the hospital in Bhuj. The woman could neither afford the trip nor bear the long journey.

She had heard about the new women's clinic and arrived there. That day, the clinic doctor was out of town, and Parma was the only one to receive the patient. Though she has had no formal training in handling anatomical emergencies, she began the treatment based on her experience. She began administering small doses of glucose, and slowly massaged the woman's stomach to ease the baby out. After a few hours of painstaking treatment, the baby was delivered successfully.

Parmaben believes that her inspiration comes from within, and from the good family values she has learnt. Women should be allowed to develop a sense of self-respect and self-esteem, she says. She laughs as she talks of her forthcoming trip to Canada. "For many years of my life, I lived behind my long ghunghat. It was difficult to even leave my house. This seems almost unreal."
Parmaben's nomination comes as a part of a project known as "1,000 Women for Nobel Peace Prize 2005". Since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 80 men, 20 organisations and only 12 women. The award is often given to statesmen who have been instrumental in negotiating formal peace agreements between countries. Yet the role of women in promoting peace within families, communities and societies is often taken for granted, and their tireless efforts in pursuit of the well being of people around them are not considered to be peace promoting. Recognising this "1,000 Women for Nobel Peace Prize" was begun in 2003 as an effort to identify and make visible the efforts of women across the globe who have had a substantial impact on their communities due to their courageous efforts in combating violence, injustice, discrimination and violence. Among the 1,000 women who have been chosen from across the world, 91 are from India, and 157 are from South Asia. Their work ranges from working towards communal peace, social leadership training to combating gender-based violence.