Women ‘Poshan Champions’ tackle malnutrition while puncturing patriarchy

The female foot soldiers of a nutrition project in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, are finding autonomy, mobility and financial security while helping mothers raise healthy children

Syed Saad Ahmed
| Updated: Last updated on May 31st, 2021,

Many of the Poshan Champions are learning to drive a scooter so they can independently move around. All photos by Syed Saad Ahmed.

“I always wanted to drive a scooter,” said Mamta Sevak. She grew up in Mumbai, but after her marriage, moved to Khadagda village in Dungarpur district. It is part of Rajasthan’s Vagad region, located along the Gujarat border. 

In November 2020, she landed a job as a nutrition counsellor, which allowed her to fulfill her longstanding ambition at the age of 37. Three months later, when she clutched the handlebars of her black electric scooter, her hands seemed unsteady. But as she picked up speed and negotiated sharp curves, her joy and confidence were palpable.    

Her colleagues have had equally elevating experiences. Twenty-seven-year-old Sangeeta Nanoma, completed her Bachelors of Arts in 2016 and had been searching for jobs for two to three years. Now the sole earning member of her family, she supports her husband and in-laws with her monthly salary of Rs 11,000. 

Forty-year-old Vijaylaxmi Rawal had quit a gig as a schoolteacher to raise two children. Now that they have grown up, she has returned to the workforce after 11 years. 

Mamta Sevak (right) with an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife.

Mamta, Sangeeta and Vijaylaxmi are ‘Poshan Champions’ (Nutrition Champions) in Rajasthan who ride their scooters in the dusty lanes of the state’s villages to drive away malnutrition. They are also an example of  financial empowerment, autonomy and mobility of women in Rajasthan, a state still under the sway of the ghoonghat (veil) and other patriarchal strictures. 

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Championing Nutrition

These women ‘Poshan Champions’ work with Project RajPusht which aims to reduce low birth weight and wasting (low weight for age) among children through cash transfers for expecting and nursing mothers and behaviour change communication. This initiative is a collaboration between the Rajasthan government, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, IPE Global, and various grassroots organisations.

Devilal Vyas, founder of People’s Education & Development Organisation, the grassroots partner of RajPusht in Dungarpur. .

The Poshan Champions counsel mothers, their husbands and family members regarding diet, supplements, pregnancy care, breastfeeding, institutional deliveries and how to fulfill the nutritional needs of infants. They also help women enroll in maternal cash transfer schemes. 

While RajPusht is operational in five districts of southern Rajasthan—Baran, Banswara, Dungarpur, Pratapgarh and Udaipur—Dungarpur stands out. Thirty-five of the 42 Poshan Champions here are women, which is remarkable considering the much lower proportion of female nutrition champions in other districts. 

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“If we are working for women, our workers should also be women. Women might not be comfortable discussing pregnancy and breastfeeding with a man they don’t know,” said Devilal Vyas. He is the founder of the People’s Education & Development Organisation, the grassroots partner of RajPusht in Dungarpur. 

Migrants, Teachers, Seekers

“Our family has five to six bighas of land where we grow wheat, corn and grams,” said Sangeeta. “We eat the harvest, but there isn’t enough to sell in the market.” While Dungarpur sees substantially more rainfall than the drier parts of Rajasthan, agriculture is not always rewarding. 

“There are not many job opportunities here. Most people do a B.Ed. (Bachelors in Education) and become a teacher or they migrate to Gujarat or Kuwait for jobs,” Mamta Sevak said.

Also Read: ‘Women’s courts’ in UP villages address gender violence

A study by Aajeevika Bureau mentions that 59 per cent of rural households in Dungarpur district have one or more members as migrants — the third-highest among Rajasthan’s districts. 

Yogita Pandya counselling mothers at the school in Bodigama Bada village, Dungarpur district.

Most of the Poshan Champions I met had done a Bachelors in Education, taught at a school or were preparing for REET—the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers, which they must qualify to teach in government schools. The competition is tough and many spend years preparing for it. 

In this milieu, a steady gig as a nutrition counsellor is a lucrative option for many. 

Pathways and Potholes

“I find this work less stressful than teaching in a school,” said Mamta Sevak. However, the job has its own set of challenges. 

The first is mobility. “Public transport is patchy in Dungarpur. Sometimes, you have to wait for two to three hours to get a bus or shared jeep,” said 35-year-old Nisha Singh Sisodiya. When a vehicle does arrive, it is usually chock full. A personal vehicle is thus a prerequisite for the job. 

Many of the Poshan Champions are learning to drive a scooter so they can independently move around. They have had minor accidents and were unbruised, but shaken. Yet, they continued driving. 

Sangeeta Nanoma’s husband Magan teaches her to ride a scooter.

The hilly terrain of Dungarpur also presents a challenge. “In villages, houses are often scattered and not accessible by road, so we also have to walk a lot. The neighbourhoods where adivasis live are outside the village. We have to cross deserted or forested areas to reach there,” explained Vijaylaxmi. 

“It takes effort to visit each house. Sometimes, after a long trudge, I find the door locked. I lose my mind then,” fumed Sangeeta. Since migration is widespread in Dungarpur, women are often not at their address. 

Sometimes, the challenges become insurmountable. For instance, 40-year-old Bindu Sharma, recently quit her job as a Poshan Champion on February 4. “I bought a scooter just for this job and even drove it for a couple of weeks. But when I heard about others’ accidents, fear gripped me,” she said. 

Pride, Passion, Patriarchy

The risks, however, come with rewards. Magan Nanoma, Sangeeta’s husband, said, “I am overjoyed that she found this job. We don’t have to go to Gujarat anymore to look for work. And staying in Dungarpur gives me time to prepare for REET. I wake up at 3 am every day to study.”

“My family often wonders why I’m doing this job (at my age),” said Krishna Bhavsar, 52, a mother of three. “At night, we sit together and I explain to them the condition of women in villages and how that results in underweight infants. I tell them about the work I do and how I enjoy it. So they now see it as a kind of social service. I have to keep motivating my family along with mothers,” she laughed.     

Some, however, encounter disapproval. Yogita Pandya, 35, said, “My in-laws don’t like this job. I leave early, travel a lot and often return late. Since I’m out all day, they have to look after the children. Regardless, I plan to continue for the duration of the project.”

Meanwhile, 37-year-old Premlata Garg, a Poshan Champion, sums it up: “I always liked working in the field, explaining things to people, helping them. So, I am enjoying this job. I would recommend all women to work. We should be independent and not have to ask others for things we want.”

The author works on nutrition at IPE Global. Views are personal.