Gender inequalities, disparities of economic conditions and cultural constraints pervade Indian healthcare and medical treatment. As a largely patriarchal society the woman’s needs are second to those of the males and children within a household and access to female doctors and medical staff is limited.
As a consequence, India has one of the highest rates of malnourished women. In most households, the women will serve the men and children first before eating whatever is left over. In low income families where food is scarce, it is the woman who will go without. The same is true of medicines and medical treatment with the males in the family receiving priority when it comes to visits to doctors and hospitals. Many families are also reluctant to to seek medical treatment for their daughters because of the stigma associated with negative medical histories which may put off potential marriage partners.
This has a lasting effect on women’s health, particularly for pregnant women - between 1992 and 2006 India accounted for nearly 20% of all maternal deaths worldwide. Also, while women represent less than half (approximately 40%) of the HIV/AIDS cases in India, they are more likely to die as a result, making the mortality rate of HIV/AIDS significantly higher for women than it is for men. They are also more likely to suffer from depression than Indian men and their rate of suicide is higher, particularly among female sex workers.
All of our projects raise awareness of health issues and their prevention. With health directly linked to education we work in schools, colleges and slum and rural communities with local government agencies such as the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and other NGOs in promoting and implementing the National Health Mission. Our health facilities and outreach work also make life-saving treatments and essential psychological support widely available to the 5 million people living in our district.
Our innovative programs have reduced STDs amongst sex workers and unwanted pregnancies and increased the survival rates of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA). By empowering and educating beneficiaries on their rights and giving them roles as outreach workers, peer educators and trustees of our board they are becoming agents of change in the public health agenda.
Improving sexual health
Since 1989, as HIV/AIDS was wreaking havoc worldwide, we have been working with over 3,000 registered female sex workers (FSW) in Ahmednagar District. With offices and clinics based in six of our district’s red-light areas and an annual program of outreach sexual health clinics and camps we provide free testing for STDs, condom distribution and sexual health education without judgment.
We rely on our network of peer mentors, recruited from our local sex worker communities, who play a key role in referring the workers to our services. Through advocacy and awareness on protection and prevention we have successfully reduced new cases of HIV from 17 to 3.4% and STDs from 56 to 2.3%, while also challenging the culture of violence that surrounds this community.
India’s first HIV hospital
There are over two million People living with HIV and AIDS (PLHA) in India and Maharashtra ranks as the second highest state in total numbers. One of our first projects was a ‘Death with Dignity’ which literally picked the dead bodies of the first AIDS victims off the streets. In 2008, we opened one of the first clinics providing dedicated treatment and palliative care to over 25,000 HIV/AIDS casualties that others refused to touch.
We recently expanded our facilities to open the first 50-bed hospital providing free or subsidised healthcare and counselling to PLHA and their families which will improve the lives of thousands more. Including a surgical unit, it will provide life-saving surgery to those who face discrimination and refusal of treatment based on their HIV status in our local hospitals. Other improved facilities include pre- and post-natal care, respirators, X-ray and laboratory testing facilities.
A new generation of healthcare workers
We recently welcomed our second batch of students to our Bedside Assistance Training Center which is training our beneficiaries and others from poor socio-economic backgrounds in healthcare. Not only are we developing our own pool of bedside assistants to meet demand in our expanding health projects, we are also providing our beneficiaries the opportunity to maximise their employment prospects in an expanding sector.
It’s reported that Indian girls typically miss around 20% of the school year due to menstruation and many women remain housebound during their monthly cycle. We are addressing our beneficiaries’ menstrual health through our small-scale Smiile manufacturing plant. Being able to produce sanitary products ourselves saves considerably on the expense of purchasing them and the income the workers receive is helping them to become financially independent.
As well as providing education in our eight balbhavan (slum community centers) and red-light areas we also provide information and support in nutrition, hygiene and health. Last year we conducted 28 health camps in our slums, referring 328 patients for hospital treatment, halving the number requiring healthcare from the previous year’s figures.
We also operate regular health and dental camps at our Rehabilitation Center, where approximately 50% of our beneficiaries are HIV+. Thanks to these interventions and the proximity of our hospital we have reduced mortality rates with no beneficiary deaths in the past three years.
Some of the pregnant girls receive support through our shelter home where we provide pre-natal care and, if required, the antiretroviral treatments to prevent the transmission of HIV to unborn babies.
To date, our adoption center has successfully rescued and saved the lives of over 500 babies. Some are dropped off at our centre by their mothers or left in the cot we have just outside our gate. Others are not so lucky and our Childline team conduct nightly rounds searching for those abandoned in public places. Sadly, many infants arrive in a very fragile and/or premature state and require hospitalisation and intensive care. Despite traumatic starts to their lives, through the support of local hospitals and doctors, access to our own incubators and staff trained in post-natal care, all of the babies admitted to our center have so far survived.
You can help…
It costs Rs 5,196,200 (US$ 80,731, UK£ 61,912) to run our healthcare projects for one year. Specialised medical treatment is expensive and discrimination against the treatment of our beneficiaries is prevalent, which is why our medical facilities are vital in providing life-saving medical treatment. With your support, we can keep providing this essential treatment and ensure our beneficiaries go on to live long and healthy lives.