SHRUTHI IYER spearheads Foundation for Mother and Child Health India (FMCH), an organisation that empowers pregnant women and new mothers belonging to vulnerable communities through innovative, community-based nutrition specific interventions.
Founded in 2006 as a grassroots organisation, FMCH has been focusing on encouraging preventive health, balanced nutrition and child developmental practices in underprivileged communities by adopting a holistic approach – embracing, educating and empowering mothers and children in their social environment.
In a quick chat, she talks about FMCH’s on-ground work during the pandemic, their interventions to break hesitancy in pregnant mothers, the state of hunger and malnutrition in India and much more.
Give India: How have FMCH’s frontline workers managed counselling and monitoring during the lockdown?
Shruthi Iyer: As a part of the pandemic response, we developed and released an app, NuTree, that helped in counselling and reaching out to families remotely. During the lockdown, this was the primary method of staying in touch with our families. However, after the first unlock, we were back in the field, doing the essential visits and high-risk counselling in person, and others remotely.
The anthropometries (body measurements) of mother and child were done in collaboration with the Anganwadi workers, maintaining social distancing and COVID protocols. While it has been challenging, we have responded to the community’s needs in these uncertain times.
GI: Hunger and child malnutrition have increased due to the pandemic – how has FMCH tackled it?
SI: At FMCH, we have always looked at ourselves as a nutrition education and services organisation. We have never endorsed or distributed food. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. Last year, we served almost 10,000 families with one month’s worth of ration during the lockdown to prevent malnutrition.
We also worked closely with the Anganwadis to provide take-home-ration as much as possible. As we prepare for a possible third wave, we plan to support the families who may get affected and prevent a further spread of the virus.
GI: Did FMCH deal with COVID-positive pregnant and breastfeeding women? How difficult was that, given how infectious the virus is?
SI: Absolutely, we have had to. Especially in the second wave, we came across many cases where pregnant persons were not able to get tested – for multiple reasons including hesitancy, fear, lack of knowledge etc. We have been counselling on isolation, use of masks at home and other hygiene and ventilation precautions that one should take.
We have been encouraging COVID positive mothers to breastfeed their babies with precautions as it is completely safe. Also, there are videos from various sources that we have made contextual and use it to inform the community.
GI: Working on-ground during a pandemic can be highly risky for your field staff – how do you manage it?
SI: We moved most of the work online during the first wave. Once the work began on ground, we have been maintaining social distance (as much as possible), following protocols and ensuring use of masks when we go into the communities.
Since we work closely with the Anganwadi staff – we have a rough idea of households/areas with high COVID positive cases. We avoid going into these areas as we could be carriers. We have also offered an option of reimbursement of personal health insurance for all our frontline workers. Ever since the vaccine was rolled out, we have been one of the early adopters of the same. Very soon, all our front line staff would be 100% vaccinated with both the doses. This gives us some more security.
GI: What are some of the greatest lessons that the pandemic has taught you?
SI: Personally, there have been several learnings – from realising what is most important in life, to the interconnectedness of the world we live in. There are 3 lessons that I think are most applicable to our work: learning to lead and innovate in uncertain times, focusing on sustainability of solutions in public health and managing the remote culture.
GI: What movie last made you tear up? If movies don’t make you cry, then which one had the most emotional impact? What did you take away from it?
SI: I don’t watch too many movies, but the last book that made me really reflect was Why I am not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah. It made me reflect on my privilege of coming from an upper caste, and I am trying to develop the caste lens better to ensure the work we do at FMCH is fair and promotes equity in an inclusive manner. It definitely changed the way I look at things.
Another book that I really enjoyed was The Bombay Plan by Sanjaya Baru and Meghnad Desai. I was thinking about how development and capitalism are linked and the book gave me insights on how we need to act in the intersection of the two – just like many leaders have thought.
GI: If you had to pick only four things to eat for the rest of your life – which four would they be and why?
SI: As someone who works in nutrition, I cannot be advocating eating only four things for the rest of my life since a variety of food is needed for proper nutrition! Each one of us needs to be consuming a healthy, diverse diet at frequent intervals in optimum quantity. I hope to be able to eat a balanced diet even if it is just four things!
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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