VHW Profile: The Story of Babai Haribhau Sathe

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Babai Sathey grew up in Village Jawalka and was one of nine siblings. Babai and her family’s identities and opportunities were dictated by their Untouchable caste. This brand precluded Babai’s family from land ownership. With so many children and a hindered ability to generate income, her parents needed her to take care of her younger brother and five younger sisters; this meant no time or money for an education. Much of her childhood was spent working to help support the family, as she recalls: “I worked in the fields as a day laborer alongside my parents because we were so poor.”

The family’s extreme poverty and Dalit status made the most basic of human needs difficult to obtain: food, shelter, and water. “My family did not have a proper house; we lived in a hut on the outside of the village. We wore torn and dirty clothes because we were so poor. We often went to the village to beg for food when we could not afford it. Sometimes my mother would bring home raw sugar and we would eat a few handfuls of it for our dinner.” Even to obtain water was a humiliating and labored task: “People in the village would pour water into our pots from a great height to avoid coming into contact with us. We couldn’t touch the well, so we had to beg beside it until someone from an upper caste gave us water.”  

As is the case for many women in India, marriage was not a favorable occasion for Babai, who was married at nine years old. At fourteen she moved in with her in-laws, who housed her in a “hut-like shed on their farm.” She discovered that they were making way for her husband’s second wife, “I was like a servant to her.”

Babai endured months of mistreatment: “Everyday I had to walk seven kilometers from Sarola to Jamkhed and seven kilometers back to sell milk from the farm. After returning from a hard day I was given only stale bread.” One night she returned home late from her long walk home; she had stopped to see her aunt, who insisted she stay for food. Her husband and mother-in-law beat her so badly that her entire body was bruised and swollen, which led to her uncle’s intervention and Babai returning to her home.

In her village Jawalka, Babai joined one of the Women’s Groups started by CRHP, which focused on the same principles of the groups today– female empowerment, community support, and health and wellness. It taught Babai “how to organize a group, conduct meetings, and discuss problems. It gave me better confidence.”

Babai’s story is one of resilience. Her continued interest in and involvement with CRHP’s work led the Sarpanch, village mayor, to encourage Babai to train at CRHP as Village Health Worker (VHW). She was to be the second VHW in her village.  When she began practicing as a VHW in her village, she was yet again met with social barriers imposed by her caste. “Upper caste women did not allow me to touch their babies… People would gossip and say, ‘She is not a doctor. She doesn’t have any children, how would she know how to take care of them?’” Despite the many rejections, with time and persistence, Babai was eventually trusted to begin her work in the villages.

Even after she began practicing as a VHW, the community was wary. It wasn’t until a delivery she had correctly classified as normal (one that a private doctor had insisted would require immediate operation and 10,000 rupees) was verified at the CRHP hospital that she gained the faith of her community and, eventually, her family. “At first, even my family was skeptical… They weren’t sure how my work would help the village, but once I began seeing patients and gained respect from the villagers, they supported me completely.”

Today, Babai has helped with over 200 deliveries, 80 of which were conducted at home. She has been diligent in her work as a VHW, addressing the needs of all community members, regardless of their caste or level of wealth. In addition to improving the lives of those in the community, Babai has used the knowledge she has learned from CRHP and applied it to her own life. She has invested the money she had saved and began selling clothes in the market until she had a substantial savings. With the money she had accumulated and with a bank loan, she purchased a plot of land for herself to produce vegetables. Now, she owns 10 acres of farmland and rents out two houses.

“Once I was economically stable, I became involved in politics. I didn’t know very much about politics. I was illiterate and I was aware of my limitations. Even though I didn’t have confidence in myself, the village people insisted that I stand for election as village mayor, or Sarpanch… I held the position of Sarpanch for five years.”

“I don’t expect any award for my contributions to my village. Everyone is happy with the improvements and they have expressed their love for me. Their appreciation is the best award.  I draw my inspiration from Dr. Arole and CRHP. Before I was from the untouchable caste, no children, and no money. I was like a stone. And now I am trained and molded for a purpose.”

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