When She Untangled ‘Taboos’ & ‘Traditions’ For Safe Delivery Among Kondh Women In Odisha

Bhubaneswar: When Sashi Miniaka, the ASHA at Khambesh in Odisha’s Rayagada, set about batting for institutional delivery, she provoked the rancour and resentment of her Kondh tribal society. For ‘iconoclastic bombast’ was feared to bomb down the social edifice where samta-s (village heads) and disari-s (local priests and healers) with stale social mores and morals ruled the roost.

Even women thumbed nose at her. Trapped in the tangles of taboos and traditions, they preferred ‘hazardous’ home delivery in the presence of their village dai-s (midwives) to ‘healthy’ institutional delivery under male doctors’ supervision.

Spiked with scorn and sarcasm, Shashi’s spirit seemed ebbing out. But, it registered a phoenix-rise in 2019, when she was cherry-picked to be a soldier in the battalion of 220 ASHA and Anganwadi workers of 288 villages in four blocks under UNICEF’s Sampurna Barta Project (SBP). She shrugged off all barbs and bullies to press on with all her pace and power, batting for institutional delivery. Ultimately she breasted the tape, when everybody including dai-s, disari-s and samta-s in Phuluguda, Khambesh and Kanabesu (her areas of operation)) started rallying round her. Now supported by every villager, she is going great guns.

“I had resorted to home delivery to give birth to my two children in inimical conditions. When UNICEF trained me on institutional delivery, I realised how safe it was. So I made up my mind to persuade expectant mothers to go in for it,” Sashi says.

Then Sashi, kitted out with her panoply of flip books, posters, leaflets and mother-and-child protection cards, marched forward to convince pregnant women of the benefits of institutional delivery. She traversed hilly and wild terrains and covered over five kilometres daily to motivate and mobilise people. Her effort bore fruit, when eight institutional deliveries took place in Khambesh alone in 2019 that shot up to over 36 in next four years.

Initially expectant mothers were frightened at being vaccinated and laid on the operation table. They even shied away from being touched and treated by male gynaecologists. “Once one Sundarmani of Khambesh took to her heels, when she heard that a male gynaecologist would do her check-up at the primary health centre in Khubabikota, about 17 kilometres from Khambesh. Fortunately Sashi was present there. She persuaded Sundarmani back to the health centre,” says Purusottama Sahu, a farmer in nearby village Hadia. Impressed with Sashi’s effort, he volunteered to throw in his lot with her.

Sashi has coherently diversified her activities related to immunisation, the nitty-gritty of care of the newborns, infant and young child feeding practices and many more ventures under SBP. “Sashi never misses Health, Sanitation and Nutrition Days for the sake of mothers and babies in the areas under her jurisdiction. She exuded immense affability to endear everybody. This is why our SBP proved a success in her areas,” says Santosh Behera, a UNICEF official.

Lusi Niska, a Kondh mother in Khambesh, lends credence to what Santosh observes. “When my daughter was born, she weighed less than 1100 grams. Now my daughter is eight months old and she weighs more than five kilograms. It has been possible only because of Sashi’s guidance,” says Lusi.

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