Our jeep stopped in front of a quiet building. No one in sight – but Pushpa, our ANM nurse led the way forward through a weathered looking archway through a quiet passage. Where is everyone – oh – there is a person, and there another.
We then ducked into a doorway and found ourselves greeted by 15 cheery adolescent girls and their facilitator – Mrs. Kiran - our Community Coordinator for the area. We were late... our visit to the previous village took longer than we thought - and the drive here seemed to take a small eternity - and Kiran told us that a few of the girls have left because they had to study (a good reason I think!).
We were here to experience an adolescent girls group that our community health programme runs.
We being my dear friends and colleagues from Mumbai-town - Vasu and Dr. Prashant - who were here to learn and explore partnership possibilities. And our programme being the community outreach programme of the Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital in Lalitpur.
We were seated up on a bed while the girls sat on the ground. Its actually less awkward than it looks. The reason being that the girls were quite confident about themselves and super quick to answer questions.
We had told Pushpa - our CHDP nurse - that we wanted to be 'flies on the wall' as much as possible in the circumstances. So we requested Kiran and her to conduct their meeting as they would have done without our being there.
After our initial introduction and a few questions from our part Pushpa went into topic of the day - a follow up teaching and discussion of nutrition.
It was a girls' group, but there were also a few curious eyes of the other gender too:
We were talking about how poor nutrition leads to anaemia - a major problem for women in the area (most of them are anaemic) and girls as well (many are).
Pushpa said that most of the adolescents had done a haemoglobin test. I was curious to know whether they knew their results and were able to remember them.
So I asked one of the young-ones. She blew me away be telling me that her haemoglobin was 8.4. The last thing I expected was hearing a lab value being given to the decimal point!
We then talked with the girls and found out that none of them had an Hb value of higher than 10. All of them were 10 or below. Some had had counts as low as 6.
What needs to be done to prevent anaemia? Eat green vegetables was the universal answer.
And do you do that? Yes - they said. How much? The answers were mixed. Though some grow the vegetables in their gardens and fields, others have to buy them.
"Now we will test their Hb" Pushpa told us.
I thought we were going to see a bunch of youngsters lining up to have blood samples taken - and shipped back to the laboratory at HBM hospital.
Instead the girls came forward, and had their fingers pricked:
But then came my surprise... the drop was put on a small test strip and the reading was done instantly using a digital hand-held apparatus!
And the very first sample broke the bank - she had a Hb of 13!
As the others came forward for their tests it was encouraging to see that almost all of them had recorded increases in their Hb levels. When before none were over 10, we now had 4 or 5 crossing 11 and above.
We still have some anaemic girls - but they are less than there were before! We are seeing it in the blood - small but real steps of progress!
Speaking of progress, I noticed that one of the girls had a red streak on the parting of her hair - the sign of a married woman. She was. And another girl too. The second girl had been married at 13 and dropped out of school. Child marriage still exists. And we had two young married women in this adolescent group.
But the good news is that both the girls were encouraged to go back to school - which they did. Thanks to the hard work and advocacy of the local community coordinator Kiran and our nurse Pushpa these girls are making steps forward.
And some of the results are showing up in their blood. In the factor of having a higher Hb level, which both shows what can be done through these groups... and also the on-going challenges that so many other young women are going through - women and girls not blessed to have a group like this.
It was time to go. A quick cup of tea and we were on our way... accompanied back to the jeep by our smiling team.
We left Pratapur wishing very much we could have been with the girls longer - and very grateful for the Masoom project staff who are investing in these precious lives - and into a hopeful future.
And so back to base!