I respond to the needs of most marginalised communities: Poonam Muttreja 

19 May, 2021 | Priyanka Sharma

Poonam Muttreja A List

In an exclusive conversation with NewsX as part of NewsX India A-List, Population Foundation of India's Executive Director Poonam Muttreja spoke about PF I’s efforts towards community building and ...

Covid-19 is the biggest challenge India has faced in these past two years. From big cities to rural areas, the pandemic has left everyone helpless. Amid these difficult times, organisations like Population Foundation of India have been helping to spread awareness on various key healthcare issues. NewsX recently interacted with PFI’s Executive Director Poonam Muttreja as part of its special series NewsX India A-List, wherein she shared PF I’s efforts towards community building and sensitisation in detail.

Speaking about PFI’s efforts towards spreading awareness on key healthcare issues, especially family planning, in the rural sector amid Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Poonam said, “PFI took the responsibility of doing both- Covid-related information, which was desperately needed and the government asked us to help develop materials from the time India went into lockdown in March. We did simultaneously on family planning and reproductive sexual health issues. So, the first thing we did was that we found out that reproductive health services have totally stopped because of the onslaught of Covid and the whole health system, especially frontline healthcare workers, being engaged with fighting this unexpected pandemic that came up upon us. We did a quick field survey and got back to the Government of India, we wrote a letter to the prime minister, health minister and to the health ministry, explaining what was happening in the field, how women weren’t getting deliveries, family planning services had stopped and even government data was showing that. We used data and I’m very happy to tell you that the health secretary was headed by a woman at the time and the additional health secretary Vandana Gurnan, both of them took one day to write a letter to every health secretary in every state to start at least minimal services and they put all these issues, including family planning, under essential health services.”

She added, “We do policy work, we give feedback to the government in a constructive way with evidence, persuade them to change, change quickly mid-course but, most importantly, what we did was for the state government, on menstrual health management, on family planning. We had a lot of materials on using condoms and so on. We immediately sent it to states across the country to use that material, which was sent through sms, WhatsApp messages to people. Second, for instance, in states like Bihar, where we do a lot of work, we requested the government to distribute condoms to migrants who were reaching in large numbers. I have experienced that the minute migrants go for a holiday during Chatt, Diwali or any festivity, that’s when pregnancies happen. We ourselves supported some of our community, for example, adolescent girls. In Bihar, they set up a bank of sanitary pads because schools distribute sanitary pads. Suddenly, with the closure of schools, the primary healthcare centers were not being available to give free sanitary pads. We sent a lot of messages to Ashas, tried to assure that goods that were stuck in lines of trucks, were hurried up, sending contraceptives materials and so on and so forth. But, our main work was using digital media and helping government using digital media across the country through both NGOs to prevent Covid and raise issues like violence against women and the need for preventing pregnancies, taking carte and so on and so forth. It was a firefighting operation we did, because everything was closed. We had to develop films during the lockdown. We made a very encouraging film on frontline health workers, which millions of people saw to honour them and make people realise what a great job these 3.3 million women were doing. Globally and in India, it went viral. People like Smriti Irani, Minister for Women and Child Development, tweeted it.”

When asked about how the foundation has been driving attention towards the need for vaccination drive in rural areas, Ms Poonam said, “We recognise that there is vaccine hesitancy and that people don’t know the positive and preventive aspects of the coronavirus vaccine. We developed behaviour change material for both the state governments and we are using it through our state offices across three states. We have to educate people. Right now, there is a huge need to educate people on the importance of vaccine and removing the myths and misconceptions. We have again developed some very interesting spots, which are being shared with people in the community by NGOs. We have enlisted a large number of NGOs across the country, who are going to use it, especially those who believe that vaccine is a very very important preventive and projective measure. What we are doing is that we are in touch with a large number of NGOs, which have set up groups. These groups that are going to work in the field on even providing services once the vaccines are available. Third, we are doing translation of materials in Hindi because CoWin is in English. We are translating it and putting it out in Hindi. Right now, it is through NGOs but state governments have agreed to use our material. As I speak to you, we have developed the material and we are transferring it. We have also done a campaign with Facebook, on all the handles on vaccines.”

Talking about her own journey till now, she expressed,Since I was in school, I got sensitised to the fact that, we the middle class, are immune to poverty and suffering around us. We just think that it happens in the villages but I fortunately was exposed to the domestic science lab worker, a lady who I discovered earns Rs 50, she is a widow and her children don’t go to school. After that, there was no looking back. I gave her my pocket money so that her 5 kids could go to school and you have no idea what pleasure it gave me and there was no turning around. So, what I do is, I respond to the needs of the most marginalised communities in the institutions I have set up, the movements I have been involved with. I don’t think of what is going to be my career path, none of that till today. I think about the need and what struck me were Dalits and untouchability. I started by designing and working with leather workers on developing products. In villages, I discovered that women had no livelihoods or agency so I started working on women empowerment and I set up an NGO called Dastakaar, which works with artisans but we brought women in big way. My thing is bring people to work with you and Dastakaar had a great team of people. I’m still associated with the NGO but what I do is that I set up NGOs. When Mrs Gandhi was assassinated and there were riots in Delhi against the Sikh community, I jumped in and we started an organisation called Nagre. So, you have to respond to what is the crisis in the community and what are the real issues. At the heart of what I do is Gender, particularly women. We have to now work on scale. Time for conversations is gone. We have to really make changes and scale, if we want to change the reality. 50% of people in country are women. We have to take advantage of the talents and the ability, capability and multitasking, doing great jobs is a huge potential.”