Health for All
Apart from health education campaigns, TNSF has been involved in action programmes for health in several districts, particularly in Vellore, Ramanathapuram, Madurai, Pudukottai and Virudhunagar. While many health and sanitation efforts have been tried out, the most successful have been the efforts in the area of women and child health care.
These are carried out at a block level, reaching a cluster of about 30-60 villages. A health worker goes around monthly, and keeps track of pregnant women and infants. Their weight is monitored periodically, and a health grade is assigned based on pre-defined parameters. A register is maintained to keep track of not only such data, but also to record marriages, conceptions, deaths etc. The idea is that regular monitoring and timely intervention in nutrition can cause visible reductions in infant as well as maternal mortality. This is not to duplicate the Government Programme but to supplement it.
This work has met with considerable success because the data is presented to elected panchayats to ensure approval and support from the village community. The hope is that such efforts are eventually taken up by the local community. Today, action for public health is one of the main areas of TNSF's work and such work is going on in nearly 700 villages spread over approximately 30 panchayat unions (development blocks) in the state.
In the year 2000, TNSF played a lead role in the People's Health Assembly, a national campaign to raise awareness among local communities on public health issues which brought together more than 2000 organizations and reached out to 30,000 villages across the country. Through people's audits and reporting of medical facilities provided by the State, a thorough examination of the functioning of all the players involved (from local health workers to doctors to administrators), the general public was mobilized for action on health.
Women's Self Reliance Groups
Started first in Kanya Kumari and Virudhunagar districts, women's small savings groups (credit co-operatives) have become a major aspect of TNSF's work. They are groups of 20 women who save five rupees a week, making the group savings nearly Rs.6000 a year. They act as a credit cooperative, offering loans to their members, and thus protecting them from usurious moneylenders during exigencies. Today, Kanya Kumari district has 1416 such groups and network of such groups called MALAR boasts of a saving of more than Rs. 2 Crore rupees, most of it circulating among its members. The recovery rate is close to 100%. Virudhunagar has 800 groups and are totally self reliant.
Initially working as defense against debt traps, the groups soon see women using the savings for essential household expenditure (like re-roofing) and then on to income generation (sewing machines, starting a kiosk). In several districts, the groups have started cottage industries like garment making (petticoats etc), pickle making etc.
More than the economic benefits, the confidence that this activity generates among the women is tremendous. In rural India, creating groups of assertive women who speak with a sense of confidence is of immense significance and TNSF attaches great importance to this effort. The groups' meetings become an occasion for discussing not only financial matters, but also issues of gender justice. Often, the groups provide protection for women from domestic violence and sexual harassment. In Ramanathapuram, these groups have opened Sahodari Maiyams, legal counseling centers for rural women.
Today, these women's groups have opened up another educational arena for TNSF: their numeracy requirements, managerial needs, and thirst for understanding on a range of social issues are challenging the preset ideas on continuing education. The need is for a mode of education that is actively involved in the livelihood of people, keeping gender issues at the center. It looks like an area where an enormous amount of work needs to be done.