Home / Politics / Policy /  Empowering rural women to provide health services

When natural calamities struck Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bihar in 1994, it was women who stepped forward, remembers Prema Gopalan, 64.

“It was these four states that needed tremendous relief, aid and reconstruction. Women came forward to provide public roles in 1,200 villages," says Gopalan.

That was the beginning of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), which Gopalan founded 19 years ago. Her organization aimed to empower women at the grassroots level with leadership and entrepreneurial skills “so that they can work towards creating a sustainable community".

SSP won the mBillionth award in 2015 in the m-health category for Arogya Sakhi, a programme it launched in 2013 for the early detection and treatment of lifestyle diseases. It is one of several programmes undertaken by the organization to build social enterprises and livelihoods for women.

It was a chance observation that some of the loans it arranged for women were being used for medical purposes that made SSP turn to medical health as a focus area.

In partnership with financial institutions, the organization disburses loans to women to help them become entrepreneurs and stakeholders. The borrowers were also required to chip in with some capital.

“We noticed that a lot of the loans that were picked up for business functioning were actually used for payment of medical expenses and other health expenses. This is when we identified a gap. Also, women and girls have always been at the risk of diseases due to low nutrition and poor sanitation practices," says Gopalan.

Door to door

Under the Arogya Sakhi programme, SSP selects and trains women who are landless, but have basic education, are interested in healthcare and community service and sport strong community links and an entrepreneurial mindset.

SSP, its technology partners and initial investors have together invested about 60 lakh in the programme since October 2013. These women, called Arogya Sakhis, then go house to house in villages to provide information and basic health services to girls and women at an affordable price.

“These women conduct a series of preventive tests using mobile health devices, capture the data by using a tablet and upload the results on the cloud server developed by our technology partner," says Gopalan.

The data is then shared with a doctor, who analyses it and makes prescriptions over the cloud.

The Sakhis then convey the information and the precautions to be taken to the patient. If required, they are referred for treatment at hospitals or with doctors partnered with SSP.

“Patients referred to our partner hospitals get 20% discount on various diagnosis and health services," says Gopalan. “Anaemia is something which is very common in rural women. The medical kits provided to Sakhis allow them to conduct tests for blood pressure, sugar and haemoglobin, besides respiratory diseases."

Backing up

Pune-based Sofomo Embedded Solutions Pvt. Ltd provides SSP with its software solutions. The health kit provided to Sakhis includes a tablet computer with software, dental screening equipment, peak flow meter, glucometer, etc.

“We haven’t started using the ECG service that Sofomo provides as yet; it has as it has other technical requirements," says Gopalan.

Besides basic check-ups and information, the programme provides the Sakhis with other channels of revenue, which include organizing health camps. Since many villages have scarce medical facilities, the Sakhis are also trained to provide medical help related to minor burns, cuts, joint pains and other ailments, for which they charge nominal rates.

Since the inception of the programme, 53 villages across Maharashtra have access to 19 rural women as Arogya Sakhis. These women have reached out to more than 15,000 community members. It aims to reach out to 600,000 people through a network of 100 Sakhis by 2017.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the mBillionth and Manthan awards.

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