IT was 22 years ago that Meera Satpathy’s NGO Sukarya took its first steps to improve the health of women and children in rural areas and urban slums of north India. Those first steps and the journey so far has benefited over 5 million people in over 600 villages and 100 slums across the country.

Over the decades Sukarya has strived to provide improved access to quality healthcare and basic education for women and children, empower women to be economically self-reliant, promote socio-economic growth in rural hinterlands and fight social evils.

Give has a quick chat with Meera Satpathy in which she talks about Sukarya’s journey so far, the pandemic and much more.

Give: The country’s health system was overwhelmed during COVID and it decreased the access to maternal and child health for the underprivileged. How did Sukarya help in handling the situation?

Meera Satpathy: With a near-total collapse of the health system, it was natural that other medical conditions would take a backseat. Although health agencies and government programmes tried to find ways of reaching people with services, maternal and child health got relegated to the background.

Sukarya is a grassroots organisation run by a team that has its pulse on the ground. So at every step our counsellors, programme managers and volunteers were in touch with target groups providing them clarity on immunisation, nutrition, intake of iron and folic acid, completing antenatal and postnatal visits, going to the hospital for scheduled deliveries, helping them avail our dry ration packets and tele-counselling. Wherever possible we established linkages and ensured no delays in accessing services.

Give: How has your programme, ‘Education on Wheels’ made a difference in the lives of underprivileged women and children during COVID?

MS: Education on Wheels (EOW) is meant for children who did not or could not have schooling. When regular school-going children are being affected by online education – emotionally and performance-wise – one can imagine what happens to the children who have never attended a disciplined curriculum.

Through the pandemic, EOW continued to share its lesson plans, guidance and instructions through the online mode. The teachers stepped up their engagement with students and their parents even if this was done virtually. All efforts were made to keep the students connected and not let them lose interest. This required more man-hours than it did to hold classes in the mobile EOW in pre-COVID times. We do feel that physical interactions are needed for these children to keep them engaged.

Give: Sukarya is one of the three chosen organisations that will receive support through the Obama Foundation’s “Girls Opportunity Alliance.”  What impact would you hope this partnership will have on girls and women?

MS: In a country like India where each region has its own diverse culture and set of challenges, you need the patronage of donors and partners who have faith in what you do and the confidence that their intervention will indeed be a catalyst in reaching a larger group of people. The Girls Opportunity Alliance has reached out to Sukarya at a most opportune time.

One of our strongest pillars relates to adolescent girl empowerment. Through this Obama Foundation-led initiative, we will provide leadership training and skills to adolescent girls in project settings in Gurugram and  Delhi. Our experience has shown that investing in girls in the age group 10-19 plays a transformative role in their lives as they acquire confidence and skills to study further, find jobs and change the course of not just their own destinies but all those connected with them. And we believe this opportunity will help us scale up our impact.

Give: Any stories from the ground that you would like to share to understand how COVID has affected the lives of migrants and slum-dwellers?

MS: Being so close to the underprivileged and privy to their most intimate stories I can safely say that poverty due to COVID strips the last shred of human dignity, especially for the migrant families residing in slums. When they lose their job, there is no food on the table. Husbands get abusive. Domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies and health issues get aggravated.

I remember how Soniya, a seven-month pregnant first-time mother, was so relieved to find Sukarya’s health volunteers who guided her through a difficult pregnancy. She was anaemic and had erratic blood pressure. Through the first phase of COVID, she took care of her pregnancy under the guidance of Sukarya’s counsellors but when in her eighth month she developed complications one night, she failed to get emergency help.

Although the community health worker and ASHA reached her house at an unearthly hour, the Civil Hospital in Gurugram refused to admit her saying they were overburdened with COVID cases. She was referred to Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi which was a COVID care hospital at the time. But on the way, she had massive convulsions and died in the back seat of the cab.

There are countless such stories. We really do hope that we can set up better systems that can provide more services to the poorest of the poor.

Give: If life had not led you to starting Sukarya, what would you rather have done?

MS: Frankly, I cannot imagine any other option and route that I may have taken. Leaving a lucrative career in advertising when I decided to start my own NGO that could dedicate itself to uplifting women in marginalised communities, I did not even think twice. Today, after spending over two decades, I realise how little one has been able to do despite all the effort and enthusiasm. It is also because there is just so much to be done.

If not Sukarya, maybe I would have started a vocational school for girls. I am a firm believer in empowering them with knowledge, skills, confidence, and self-belief.

Give: If you had to choose between listening to music, watching a film or reading a book, what would it be? What would you listen to/ watch/ or read?

MS: I would go for all of it. Music and books are my passion. And watching films – mostly historical, period films, war films, and romantic films of Disney.

I am an avid reader and lately also selectively viewing good films since one is spending so much time working from home. Inspiring stories, autobiographies and documentaries of powerful women have always provided me with direction and hope. I also like the idea of audio books which are a nice and animated way to help you catch up on some of the books that you have been wanting to read but have not found the time to do so. But as I said, being selective is important and since I am mostly a doer, I need to plan my sedentary activities judiciously.

To support Sukarya as they help women across India, you can donate here.

Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan


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