Religious preachers turn drivers for change

Religious preachers in Rajasthan’s Tonk district, have been employed as health advocates in the Muslim-dominated district, which has brought about visible changes in the mindset of people, concerning health issues, finds out Rajasthan Post

 Newborns in Muslim-dominated Tonk district of Rajasthan are not crying over spilt milk anymore.

Their mothers Nagma, Zebunissa, Salma and many others are ready to give them the first feed, even if some elderly person in their family is not whispering the ‘azaan’ into their ears, a mandatory age-old ritual practiced in this Muslim-dominated small town of Tonk.  Majority of Tonk’s 1.65 lakh population is Muslim.

For a newborn, the first hour of birth is the golden hour and research has shown that nursing within the first hour of life not only enhances the survival rate but also helps in developing immunity to diseases. 

This would not have been possible if it was not for the rare health advocates in this highly-conservative community. Here the religious heads and teachers took over as health counsellers and became drivers for change in old habits and mindset. 

NGOs like Save The Children, CECOEDECON  (Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultants Society) working in the area, say it was near impossible for any outsider to gain entry into a house and explain the need for institutional deliveries, importance of the first breastfeed for newborns and family planning to lactating mothers and other family members.    

Hemant Acharya, communication coordinator of Save The Children, Rajasthan, said “Initially, the religious conservatism of the place was a challenge for us. Community members were resistant to practices such as family planning, immunisation. Women could not leave their homes and had limited opportunity to access health services or take their children to Anganwadi Centres or hospitals for immunisation.”

Acharya added: “To penetrate into the conservative society and make them aware about health issues we thought of seeking the help of religious leaders, whose words and advices are followed by the community. But that was tough. It took us four-five months to convince the religious leaders themselves but once they got convinced, they achieved a considerable difference in the mortality rate of newborns, health and hygiene issues in the region.”    

Religious preachers make Muslim families aware about health issues in Tonk district
Religious preachers make Muslim families aware about health issues in Tonk district

So for the first time in Rajasthan, 26 religious leaders of Tonk in age-group from 40 to 65 were trained and were sensitised on the health, nutrition and sanitation issues of their communities. They were made to understand the role they can play to disseminate health information.

One of the religious leaders, Imam Abdul Aziz of Azam Shah Masjid, said, : “Initially we were every reluctant  to take up the task. I did not even know what an Anganwadi centre (centres started by government in 1975 to combat child hunger and malnutrition) was? As our training progressed, I understood the need for spreading awareness about health and hygiene and why was it necessary that the newborns get mother’s breast milk in the first hour of birth. After namaaz or during any other congregations, I informally talk to the husbands and the family members and explain the need of cleanliness, and other health issues.”

Jaswinder Kaur, another social worker said: “These religious leaders are highly respected and often looked upon for advice on a range of issues. They listen attentively to the their leaders and follow the instructions too.”  

So these 26 religious leaders including some madrasa teachers try to pitch in health messages in a way that clearly fit within the values, beliefs and directives of Islam. They also talk about educating girls, who they believe can then become better mothers. 

Hafiz Sayeed, a religious teacher and a community leader, who also spreads awareness about health, said :  “Even for us, it was quite difficult to directly tell the female family members. I go and teach students in their  homes. When I am there I interact with family members and talk to them about the importance of health, hygiene and proper check-ups. Young boys are also getting aware this way.”      

Religious leaders as health advocates in their communities have been able to catalyse a degree of behavioural change.

“Good news is that the registration for antenatal check-ups (ANC) has reached 98 per cent and institutional deliveries are at 92.7 per cent. Regular health check-ups have increased by 10 per cent and children’s health status has gone up from 23 to 50 per cent. Exclusive breastfeeding within an hour of birth has increased to 86.4 per cent,” said Acharya.

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