Women’s army battles the virus in rural India

Rakhee Roytalukdar | Updated on June 15, 2021

App and about: Voice-enabled Meri Saheli app on their phones help women run their business both physically and digitally   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A 10,000-strong group of women has been spreading awareness about Covid-19 and the need for a jab

* Saral Jeevan Saheli has been working in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar since 2015

* Its USP is that the women in the villages are known faces

* As the pandemic spread last year, there was a growing realisation that the vast network of rural women could help disseminate information about the virus, its spread and protection methods

* Around 30,000 micro-level entrepreneurs from three start-ups will help execute and amplify the Covid-19 Response message

* * * *

There is a risk in everything that one does, Shobha tells groups of villagers through the day. “It can be risky when we ride a bike or walk along the highway. Taking a vaccine is also a risk, but it is worth it for it protects us from the deadly coronavirus,” she says in many different ways as she meets people in her village Kithoor in Rajasthan’s Alwar district.

Shobha, 37, is a member of Saral Jeevan Saheli, a 10,000-strong network of rural women working in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from 2015. The group is now fanning out both physically and digitally to create awareness about Covid-19 and vaccination in their own villages and surrounding areas.

Her job is to convince reluctant villagers in Kithoor to take the jab. And it has been a fruitful task, she says. “Despite the mundane routine, I have never felt more content doing my work,” she stresses.

Her argument in favour of the vaccine turned 50-year-old Ram Singh of her village from a vaccine naysayer to a staunch proponent of coronavirus vaccines. She counselled him time and again, citing her own example, and his hesitation finally turned into vaccine acceptance.

Making life simpler for village folks — connecting them, for instance, with energy efficient quality products or solving their bank problems digitally — was the prime focus of Shobha’s work till the pandemic struck. Now she focuses on spreading awareness about the virus and how the villagers need to protect themselves.

When the Saheli network was set up in 2015, the work largely entailed selling energy efficient products such as solar torches and lanterns, and later home appliances, smart phones, agri-products, digital services and home care essentials. Indian-American Ajaita Shah, founder of the initiative Frontier Markets in 2011, wanted to tap the uncharted rural market by bringing them quality products and services using tech-driven solutions.

Initially, her employees were men, but by 2015 she wanted a gender-inclusive business model. For this she built up an all-women workforce, tapping into their innate sense of communication and diligence towards duty.

“We recognised that rural women are the driving force behind the growth of the micro-level village economy. So our focus was to digitally upskill rural women, assimilate them into our workforce and improve their own and their family’s life as well,” Shah says in an email interview.

Saral Jeevan Saheli’s USP is that the women in the villages are known faces. “As women in villages know each other, we were able to build a reliable network of, empowering them in the process and also ensuring the last-mile delivery,” Shah adds.

Many of the women were already a part of Self Help Groups and working with NGOs and so had a good network. They were further trained and given a regional-language and voice-enabled Meri Saheli app on their phones through which they could run their business both physically and digitally. The women earned ₹4,000-5,000 a month on sale commissions.

But as the pandemic spread last year, there was a growing realisation that the vast network of rural women could help disseminate information about the virus, its spread and protection methods. “Sahelis are our anchors for solving social problems and technology enables us to amplify their voice through data,” Shah says.

Frontier Markets has now partnered with 1Bridge and Hesa, two other social enterprises, to form the Rural Access Coalition for the Covid-19 Response Team to support rural communities. Sahelis are being trained by healthcare professionals from NGO such as Armman, which uses technology to improve the health of pregnant women, mothers and children, and Noora Health, which saves lives of at-risk patients by empowering family caregivers. The start-ups are also working with BASIX B-able, a livelihood promotion institution that promotes sustainable livelihoods for rural people.

Sahelis ensure the last mile distribution of relief products such as ration kits, PPE, sanitisers and other relevant products. Donors and partners of the start-ups are paying for the relief materials as part of their social outreach programmes.

“This network of sahelis will leverage their convening power in the rural communities in which they operate. And in coordination with healthcare service providers and local government officials, will help rural families register on Co-Win [a government app] for vaccinations and work with local health centres to schedule and coordinate vaccinations,” Shah says.

Apart from the payment that they get for selling items such as solar products and agri-products, the women will get an additional stipend of ₹1,000 a month for their involvement in the Covid-19 coalition.

Raghul Chitlangia, head of digital Saheli engagement of Frontier Markets, says that fellow villagers trust the women workers as they are already “influencers” in the villages. “Village folks have a general belief that the Sahelis, whom they have know personally for years, will not spread misinformation as they genuinely care about their own communities.”

So when Manpreet Kaur, a Saral Saheli in Nangal Heera village in Alwar district, got involved in the Covid-19 awareness programme, people listened to her. “We know every household in our village and they believe us when we say we have got vaccinated and we are fine. We tell them about the need to maintain social distancing, avoid gatherings, to wear masks and also to go for vaccination. We also help them to find vaccination slots and register them on Co-Win,” she says.

Villagers are informed about vaccination centres. “We also visit houses after vaccination, keep a tab on their well-being. We send WhatsApp messages every day to update them about Covid-19 information. We keep track of anybody with a cough, cold and fever.”

Sahelis have been actively working in about 2,500 villages connecting 3.5 lakh rural households in Ajmer, Dholpur and Alwar districts of Rajasthan.

Frontier Markets’ collaboration with Hesa and 1Bridge now would enable rural entrepreneurs to become active in Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, reaching another 15,000 villages in the South. Around 30,000 micro level entrepreneurs from all three start-ups will help execute and amplify the Covid-19 Response message.

Shobha says, “In our training, we have learnt that vaccination is one of the most successful public health interventions for controlling and eradicating deadly diseases. And that continued vigilance is necessary given the nature of this virus.”

Many villagers, she adds, are worried about the potential side effects of the vaccine. “They often believe the vaccine itself can cause the disease that it is supposed to prevent. So we are trying evidence-based counselling (such as giving our own examples) to get our villagers to go for the jab.”

In local parlance, they call it ‘Jab jung’ — or the jab war. “We are determined to win it,” she says.

Rakhee Roytalukdar is an independent journalist based in Jaipur

Published on June 15, 2021

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