New Delhi: Vidya Thapa begins her work with a song. The lyrics allude to the strength, identity and magic of womanhood. How can a woman be deemed a burden when she is the one cooking, cleaning and caring for family, the song asks.
This idea forms the core of Thapa’s work as a community health worker for Action India, a grass roots organization based in New Delhi that seeks to empower women through awareness and education. Establishing an identity based on a woman’s contributions—instead of the constant refrain that her birth is unwelcome, that she is a burden—is essential to both India and women’s development, says Thapa.
The knowledge she shares may be basic by many women’s standards—why they get their menstrual periods, for example—but for poorer women and their families, it often is the only way to empower. The women thus become able to make informed decisions about their lives, their bodies and their health, she says.
And so Thapa coordinates discussions among women primarily in the slum areas of New Seemapuri, a resettlement community about a one-hour drive east of the Capital. On a recent day, dressed in a red and green sari, she exuded energy in a sea of stark poverty, her eyes smiling and her small graceful hands punctuating her comments.
Through Action India, Thapa has received extensive training in women’s health issues and Ayurvedic medicine. Today, with the rise of cervical cancer, she is able to prescreen for certain indicators and advise women to obtain pap smears.
Action India instituted its women’s health programme in 1984 and receives funding from large donor organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Global Fund for Women and the United Nations Development Fund for Women; it works with the urban and rural poor in 14 communities.
Thapa joined the organization as one of its first health workers and has been there for more than two decades. She meets weekly with groups of approximately 15 women for a minimum of six months; sessions touch upon reproductive and gynaecological health, family planning and domestic violence. There is particular emphasis on educating women about contraception and on enabling them to decide how many children they will have.
This year, Thapa received the 2007 Exemplar Award for Health from the Confederation for Indian Industry and the Bharti Foundation in recognition of her contributions to India’s development.
“I don’t want another woman left behind. I want them to have a voice,” she says.
Originally from Dehradun, Thapa came to New Delhi shortly after her marriage at the age of 19. However, it was even earlier, as her brothers received the opportunity to study and she didn’t, that Thapa was first inspired to increase society’s view of women’s worth—beginning with the women themselves.
Apart from providing health education, participation in the groups enables the women to develop advocacy skills, seek health-care resources, even assistance for water and plumbing. Many achieve financial independence through self-employment.
Over the years, Thapa has successfully stopped marriages where demands for a dowry are made. Another feat, she proudly describes, is leading women in street protests to prevent their husbands from squandering money on lottery tickets.
As most of the women who participate in Thapa’s collectives are illiterate, information is communicated through songs, theatre, role-playing and metaphor; such as the image of growing a plant to demonstrate that girls deserve the same care and treatment as boys. If you want two plants to grow strong, healthy and productive, you must nurture them equally, Thapa explains matter-of-factly.
“She is a skilled health worker–creative. She mobilizes people,” says Gouri Choudhary, progamme director for Action India. “She has great communication skills.”
Nina, who uses only her first name, one of the very first women Thapa worked with, says what she learned from Thapa about family planning enabled her to control how long a gap she wanted between her pregnancies. She adds that the bond with her husband, whom she married at age 13, has also strengthened and they are able to talk more openly. “She has a factor which touches your heart,” says Nina.
The biggest challenge, aside from the constant crunch of funding, is recruiting women to join. Initially, men labelled Thapa and other community health workers as homebreakers, she recounts. With the passage of time, resistance has eroded and been replaced by trust. “We make it simple and easy to understand. That’s why we don’t face criticism.”
Choudhary attributes Thapa’s ability to connect and bond with the women to a common experience. “They identify with her. This is not someone going from middle- class to preach,” she says.
By now, Thapa has worked with more than 3,000 women to break boundaries and challenge cultural taboos, serving as community leader, educator and activist.
Asked how it feels to be recognized with her recent award, Thapa says, “My 23 years of hard work and struggle have finally borne fruit. When we started in 1984, we didn’t think whether night or day, hail or storm, just thought of it as our task... We came as a wave and swept the entire area.”
She credits a supportive husband and mother-in-law with allowing her career to flourish, alongside the women she counselled. With her husband in the army, her mother-in-law often cared for their three children when Thapa had to travel to trainings or meetings. Her two daughters and one son are now grown and Thapa’s husband has retired, but she does not show any desire of slowing down.
Now in her 40s, she contemplates the future, saying that she intends to continue her work for years to come. In her old age, she prefers not to go and live with her son as tradition dictates, but to stay put, to keep redefining tradition.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org