Women who Aspire … and Inspire – Part 2

Civil society organizations often grapple with the challenge of representing their achievements, and fall back on numbers to quantify the elusive dream of social change – the number of malnourished children has reduced to x, and child mortality in the area is down by y – but the significance of some achievements is impossible to express in either words or numbers. Undoubtedly the trajectories of the five women who spoke to me were fundamentally changed through their contact with BHS. It was so evident from the pride in their voice as much as in their actions that BHS is an important source of support and validation for them and their commitment to the work is extraordinary. Why else would a cancer survivor undergoing chemotherapy come to work in a hospital every day? Why else would an elderly Adivasi woman spend out of her own meager pocket to bring patients to the clinic? How else would a young nurse in the remote village of Ghated present her work before an international audience of medical professionals?

We are used to a mainstream healthcare system in India which is hierarchical with the specialists and doctors at the top and all other roles relegated to a strictly subsidiary position. Such hierarchies were singularly absent in the BHS clinics that I visited. Everywhere the doctor was as much an equal member of the team as the nurse or the health worker or the translators who acted as the crucial bridges between the patient and the health professionals. The greatest difference between a government-run PHC and the PHC run by BHS is not that corruption is rampant in the public system, but that during lunch break everyone sat together in Dr. Rahul’s house and shared their dabbas.

“All of us always sit together and eat, even when Pavitra Sir or Sanjana Ma’am is here, they sit with us … and we always sit in a circle so that we can all see each other,” a young health worker says with a laugh.

“And we are all free to offer our ideas to better the healthcare services,” adds another nurse, “it is not as if a junior or less educated person should not speak…we believe anyone can come up with a solution, anyone can come up with a good idea.”

Treating patients on a daily basis is one thing, creating spaces to practice the values of dignity, equality and friendship is another thing. In my eyes, the greatest achievement of BHS is that they strive to do both. The organization and the individuals truly sustain each other.

Each of the five women I spent time with has come up the hard way. Each one is impacted by the harsh social and economic conditions of the region, where livelihood resources, healthcare, education, nutrition are all difficult to access. Sometimes the harsh realities of their childhood or marital lives or personal ailments were difficult to listen to and yet I was aware that they had overcome of all of these to establish themselves as working professionals. In a region where women still cover their faces in ghunghats, these are women who continue to push forward towards the horizons of education and independence.

All five women possess a rare twin-vision – the ability to understand and assess the larger processes and goals of social transformation and at the same time to commitment themselves to the daily hard work and discipline that sustains the larger process. They shared how they had seen the community changes before their eyes – families have become more conscious of nutrition for the pregnant women, children are bathed every day before being sent to the Phulwari, tuberculosis patients take medicines regularly, water is boiled before it is drunk, people with fever come forward on their own to check blood for malaria. These are not mean achievements in a region where public healthcare system barely exists and people are left at the mercy of quacks – ‘jholachhap Bangali doctors’.

“How easy is it to get the community to change its ways?” I ask.

Lage rehna padta hai we have to keep persuading them, and find new ways of convincing them,” they say. One of the concrete ways in which the community supports the organisation is through the Gram Panchayat providing the infrastructure for the clinic. In Manpur however there was a problem because the old Gram Panchayat office where the clinic was to be set up is located right next to the temple.

“Initially the community was against our setting up a clinic here because they were against deliveries being conducted next to the temple. They said that deliveries would defile the temple.”


“Then we argued with them and gave them time to think about it and finally they said okay. Now nobody minds that the clinic is here.”

It is an invaluable insight into how a supportive civil society organisation and the individuals who work in it mutually strengthen each other. This enables greater changes in the community that is served.

I came away with deep respect for the work that Dr. Sanjana Mohan Brahmawar, Dr. Pavitra Mohan and their entire team is doing in the rural communities through BHS. And I have no words to express my gratitude to Chandrabhanu Soni, Soniya Modiya, Narmada Meena, Swagibai Gameti and one anonymous sister for being the inspiration that they are. I was vastly enriched by our interaction, left humbled by their gritty determination, generosity and powerful spirit. They are women for whom Maya Angelou wrote her immortal words:


You my shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise …

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Written by: Paromita Goswami