Community Health Workers- change agents and mobilisers

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The American Public Health Association defines a community worker as: “a frontline public health worker who is a trusted member of and/or has an unusually close understanding of the community served. This trusting relationship enables the worker to serve as a liaison/link/intermediary between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery”. Non-profits working towards improvement of vulnerable population rely on the work of these individuals, to achieve the organization’s mission.

Community health workers (CHW) are therefore fundamental for implementing field-level programming by engaging the community and the beneficiaries through participatory efforts. Carrying out initial work in the community through surveys, house-listing, community mapping, corner meetings, micro-planning etc. are crucial tasks in establishing first contact with the community. Initial community engagement activities carried by CHW(s) include identification of eligible beneficiaries, enrolling them for the sessions, services and trainings. They also mobilize community to participate in group education events and campaigns. Carrying out interventions in the community through group formation, group/community meetings, counselling, information sharing, capacity building, paying home visits, conducting growth monitoring health camps and vociferously following up with individual cases are significant activities carried by them. An important skill that they have mastered over their engagement with the community is customizing the information delivery based on the requirements of the beneficiary. Case management and referrals are other vital tasks carried by them to reach out to the beneficiaries.

A critical area of SNEHA’s research involved analyzing the motivations of these frontline workers, to both take up as well as sustain in this challenging role. As such, a study was created in order to gain insight into the perception of roles and responsibilities by CHWs as well as motivations and challenges they faced. The study comprised of in-depth interviews of the health workers from four NGOs namely: SNEHA, Apnalaya, Foundation for Mother and Child and Shelter Associates, to tap into areas, from background information and training, to personal and organizational factors.

Many themes emerged as to why CHWs decided to join the non-profit sector to begin with. Narratives expressed a desire to contribute to purposeful work, as well as to increase one’s knowledge base from a personal growth perspective. Others expressed support from supervisors as contributing factors to making the decision to join the organization. Another narrative offered willingness to try out work in a new field, and an opportunity to return to the workforce following marriage and motherhood as motivation behind initial association.

Community Health Workers also reported having a positive impact on beneficiaries who engage with trained staff during a critical phase in their growth and development. This, CHWs stated, gave rise to a capacity for self-reflection, increase in knowledge and discernible behavior modification, promotion of healthy relationships through candid conversations between beneficiaries and their parents, and added value through incentivized vocational courses, such as computer literacy and English speaking for beneficiaries. Most importantly, confidence and a personal connection and rapport is built in beneficiaries, and changes seen in youth that push forward that they will go on to produce an equitable society free from gender based or domestic violence.

As for their perceived role, many CHWs believe they served as teachers as well as resource personnel. However, they also believed their responsibilities and scope of influence transcended programming and campaign initiatives. They served as confidants and guides to youth and adolescents by providing them with a safe space, to share their experiences and voice their opinions.

Self-reported characteristics of an ideal CHW included: a strong work ethic, exceptional communication skills, and the ability to generate goodwill through intensive rapport-building efforts in communities. Many front line workers left feeling their own exposure to topics during training left them having not only gained knowledge but also triggering introspection and empowerment within them themselves.

Most CHWs reported having a positive and supportive environment at work and were well satisfied with provisions offered by the organization, including training, timely salaries, flexibility with schedules, as well as staff support and real time feedback.

As for challenges that arose within their work, CHWs expressed the need to juggle multiple responsibilities, thus risking being overstretched. Financial situations also posed a challenge, as did organizational factors.

Perhaps one of the most moving aspects of the study was the participants’ personal account on the changes they had witnessed within themselves, having been part of the organization. While their role was believed to be multifaceted to include serving as a teacher, confidant and guide to the beneficiaries, a significant element that emerged from their personal journey with the NGO was their own process of self-reflection. This manifested in an internalization of knowledge within participants such that through their evolving understanding of themes, empowerment emerged. Affection and respect for working with interacting with children arose as well, contributing to a positive learning environment. Participants also expressed an increase in topical knowledge; skill based competencies, as well as improvements in communication skills and self-confidence. Most importantly, participants saw themselves community resources persons, with one expressing the view of being a change agents, with the ability to empower people in the community.

 

Why Family Planning must be key priority in Budget 2017

Just this month, a woman died and five others were critical after a surgery at a family planning health camp in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district went horribly wrong.

The woman who died was just 36 years old. The death, according to reports, occurred because the government doctor at the Primary Health Centre cut the intestine instead of the fallopian tube while operating on her.

The tragedy brings home the critical gaps in India’s family planning programs especially in large parts of rural India. Given this, it is important that the government prioritizes family planning in the upcoming Budget to ensure that young couples are offered information about, and given access to FP options.

In 2015, the Health Ministry announced some welcome measures in this regard, like expanding the basket of contraceptive choices and ensuring their availability in district hospitals. There are now three spacing methods of contraception in the government FP program – Centchroman, Progestin Only Pills, and injectable contraceptive – offering greater choice and independence to users.

But India is still way short of the commitments it has made under FP2020. At the 2012 London summit, the country had promised to provide FP services to an extra 48 million new users by 2020.

The progress report in 2015-16 shows just how far we are from that goal. Less than eight million extra users have been catered to until July 2016. To meet the targeted numbers, the government has to allocate more resources towards meeting the FP needs of the population.

Census 2011 showed that over 10 crore girls in India get married before they are 18 years old. Young couples, across communities, come under great pressure to have a baby within a year of marriage. Many of them want to delay babies but don’t have the information or access to do so.

Expanding contraceptive choices for men and women while important is not sufficient by itself. They have to be empowered about exercising these choices and this has to be done through sustained community awareness campaigns by the government, civil society and other stakeholders. This needs extra staff on the ground and therefore more funds. The budgetary allocations to health and FP need to be substantially hiked.

India spends just 1.3% of its GDP on healthcare, a figure far lower than countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Russia and China. Even Afghanistan and Nepal allocate more. Budget 2017 needs to address this shortfall.

A compelling case for contraception

Recently Melinda Gates made a compelling, passionate statement about how giving millions of women access to contraception was necessary to end poverty and disease for both present and future generations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, of which Melinda Gates is co-founder, has made it a mission to ensure that millions of women in developing societies have access to safe birth control measures. Since 2012, Ms Gates has been leading a worldwide campaign to get 120 million more women access to birth control by 2020. The BMGF has donated over one billion dollars towards family planning.

Never before has this fight for a woman’s right to decide if, when, and how many children she wants to have been more important. The recent India wide study on how ten million women in the country are forced to resort to unsafe abortions every year underlines the critical need to make contraceptive options available.

The study, done by the IndiaSpend team, highlights that myths and misinformation about contraceptive methods are still widely prevalent despite India having the longest government-backed family planning campaign in the world. Millions of women still lack access to contraceptive options. They are left with no option but to take over-the-counter pills or undergo dangerous, unhygienic surgeries to end pregnancies.

A 2016 Lancet report highlights how distant the prospect of safe abortions remains for rural Indian women. This is the case even nearly five decades after abortion was legalized in India. In the absence of safe methods, sales of popular abortion pills remain abnormally high.

Widening the basket of contraceptive choices, as the government did earlier this year, is a much welcome, long overdue step. But to be truly effective, these choices have to reach the millions of women in our smaller towns and villages. That needs better delivery systems, better training of doctors, and a mass awareness campaign. All of which remains a giant, gaping hole in our FP program.

Not enough in this budget for Family Planning

Among the most widely reported statements at the International Conference on Family Planning held in Indonesia in January this year was that of the Indian Health Minister JP Nadda who said that the country was committed to meeting the FP2020 goal of providing 48 million additional women and girls with access to modern contraceptives by 2020.

A global partnership, Family Planning 2020, works with governments, civil society and the private sector to enable women and girls to make decisions regarding if, when, and how many children they want.

The Indian Health Ministry team also announced that women would have access to better quality family planning services. A promise that is being met with. Since April, injectable contraceptives and pills are being supplied to all district hospitals across the country.

However, the recent report by the Population Foundation of India points out just how distant that goal of recahing 48 million women and girls is.

While the provision for health in 2016 has grown by 22% over 2015, with FP seeing a substantial increase of 67% compared to previous years, health remains hugely underfunded in India. The rise this year, it points out, is insufficient to compensate for the whopping 54% decline in allocations to family welfare between 2013-14 and 2015-16.

Meeting the 48 million number needs more than simply expanding the basket of choices. It needs awareness campaigns and better rural health facilities to ensure that babies and mothers survive. Campaigns have to be tailored to meet the specific challenges that a country as varied as India throws up.

While the shift away from female sterilization is welcome, there seems to be widespread official myopia in acknowledging just how deep the links between family planning and broader development goals go, and this is disturbing.

Guttmacher Report underlines need to meet adolescents’ contraceptive needs

Twenty three million – that’s the number of adolescents at risk of unintended pregnancies in the developing countries.

The statistic, part of the Guttmacher Institute’s May report Adding It Up: Costs and Benefits of Meeting the Contraceptive Needs of Adolescents, again points out the huge gap in contraceptive services among adolescent women. The report says that many women who want to delay childbearing are not getting the services they need.

About 40 million of the over 250 million adolescent women between 15–19 years in developing regions are sexually active and want to avoid pregnancy, yet 23 million of them have an unmet need for modern contraception. Most adolescents with unmet need are using no contraceptive method while the rest depend on traditional methods, which have been proven to be not so effective.

All this underlines the need to make sure modern contraceptives is made available in developing countries. This, according to the report, will not only prevent unintended pregnancies but also prevent the 3,000 adolescent maternal deaths reported every year in developing countries.

At 21% India has among the highest unmet needs for contraception in the world. This is despite the fact that we were the first country in the world to launch a government-backed family planning program. However, today countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, which started their programs much after India, are faring much better.

The government has recently launched a wider pool of contraceptive choices for women. Welcome steps, but there needs to be more focus on behaviour change communication. Young women and couples want to plan their families but do not know where to get the information.

Zika outbreak: Lessons for India

The fear and panic over the spread of the Zika virus disease has helped highlight the inadequacies many countries face in providing family planning and reproductive health services. The outbreak may be far from India’s shores, but those lessons hold true for us as well.

Zika has been declared a global public health emergency. There are fears, not entirely proven, that it is linked to birth defects in babies whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy. Over 3000 cases of microcephaly—an oddly small head and an immature brain—have been reported in Brazil.

Given that the virus is spreading rapidly, with no proven vaccine in the horizon, women who are pregnant, or are likely to become pregnant, are in a spot.

In many of the countries affected, abortion is illegal. In some regions, contraceptives are in short supply. But going by the statements coming from political leaders, the onus seems to be entirely on women.

In El Salvador, women have been told to postpone getting pregnant for up to two years. How will they given that it’s not always accessible?

The public health system in many of these countries is in a poor state, much like in India. Rural areas, which are understaffed, are worse off. Again, much like in India. There is also great stigma attached to contraception.

Like India, the societies in many Latin American countries are deeply patriarchal. Cases of rape, including marital rape, are high. So where is the question of women exercising the choice to not get pregnant?

Zika is already out of the headlines, swept away by another crisis in another part of the world. But the outbreak has thrown up relevant questions. Like the need to build a strong public health infrastructure, make available a range of contraceptive choices, and most important, empower women to exercise those choices.