Life-saving mentoring for mothers in rural India

India has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Tradition in rural villages dictates that women give birth at home - but this leads to thousands of preventable deaths. VSO is working with NEEDS, an organisation that recruits local volunteers who go into rural communities and talk to mothers about the life-saving benefits of going to hospital to give birth.

In India, a shocking 78,000 mothers die in childbirth and from complications of pregnancy every year.

Many are very young: among women aged 15 to 19, 16 percent have already started having children. The majority will live in rural areas where teenage marriages are common and where women struggle to feed their families, let alone themselves. Their status is low, so women are last to eat; if there was little food to begin with, there’ll be little left over when their turn comes. As a result of their inadequate diets, more than half of Indian women are anaemic - another potential killer during childbirth.

When traditions become life threatening

“Traditionally many women deliver at home,” explains Sangita Singh, a VSO volunteer working with NEEDS. “It’s something that’s entrenched within them. A lack of education and a lack of awareness of little things, like monitoring pregnancies throughout their term, and looking for very easy warning signs around their health, mean that there are a lot of preventable deaths.”

Looking around the tiny hut that she shares with 12 members of her family in the remote village of Khendira, it’s hard to believe that Kanchan Devi is one of the lucky ones. But compared to many, she is fortunate - she has given birth to three babies and has lived to tell the tale.

Like two-thirds of Indian women, 25 year old Kanchan had her first two children at home. There was no one but an untrained traditional birth attendant to help her through the delivery, so Kanchan was putting herself at great risk. But she knew no other way. 

NEEDS volunteers dispel fears and change attitudes

Then, when Kanchan was pregnant with her third child, a local volunteer from NEEDS visited her.  Sadha told Kanchan about the benefits of giving birth in a hospital. “She told me it would be better for me,” says Kanchan. “But I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I would prefer to have my baby at home.”

But Sadha was persuasive, so a heavily pregnant Kanchan bravely travelled the 20 kilometres to the nearest hospital in Deoghar. As Sadha had promised, Kanchan was treated well. “I received a registration card, dahl and rice every day and vaccinations,” she recalls. “Nurses were there, doctors were there, I had medicines.”

Kanchan was also given all-important iron tablets to help fight anaemia. She didn’t have to pay to give birth in hospital; instead, she received 1600 rupees (about £22) from the hospital for going there to have her baby.

“After I had the experience, I was no longer scared,” remembers Kanchan. “I felt good about getting the free care. I will tell my family and neighbours what Sadha told me. My hope is that all women in India will be given the information I was given.”

Real life in rural India

Asked if she would choose the hospital over home when her fourth child comes along, Kanchan laughs, but her words are somber. “Three children is enough – three is too many. If we had had a girl and a boy, it would have been fine. But as we had no boy, we had to have another. We are very poor people and children are very expensive. Where will we get the money from?”

For now, Kanchan has her work cut out. While her husband is out earning a living as a bus conductor, she does all the chores in the house while caring for her three small children. Her hopes and dreams for them? “We are poor people. We don’t have dreams. I hope that my children will be educated, and will learn to read and write.”

How to apply

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