They are the unsung heroes of Nepal’s health sector.
In the last two decades, these women have supported in improving the country’s health standards from a community level – a cadre of 52,0000 Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHV) have actively aided in bettering the lives of mothers and children across the country’s 75 districts.
In its 25 years now, the Government of Nepal started the FCHV program in 1988 with support from international development agencies like USAID, UNICEF and UNFPA along with local non-government organizations. The main objective then was to have a representative from the community who would work for their community.
After more than two decades, these Female Community Health Volunteers work on the very principle of serving their community. However, their roles have expanded over the years – they’re not only health promoters but in some cases also health providers. From counseling young girls on sexual health to would-be-mothers on safer motherhood and healthy nutrition and contraceptives to treating and referring cases of pneumonia and acute respiratory infections to local health facilities, the FCHVs have played a vital role in saving lives.
What started as a community-based program is now a national pride.
Speaking at an event commemorating the silver jubilee anniversary, Minister for Health & Population Vidyadhar Mallik said the FCHVs have “helped the country in achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and out Nepal in the global map of success.”
According to Dr. Kiran Regmi, Director of the Family Health Division that administers this program, FCHVs have contributed from the grassroots level and are working actively in places that are cut off from health facilities. She also credits them for helping the country to reduce the maternal, infant and under-five mortality rate.
According to Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2011, infant mortality has declined by 42 percent and under-five mortality by 54 percent over the last 15 years. The maternal mortality rate has also seen a drastic slowdown between 1996 and 2006, from 539 to 281 deaths per 100,000 births.
This progress has made Nepal one of the few countries that are “on track” to meet the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal and child mortality, as per the MDG Progress Report 2013.
However, as goals are being achieved, the grim realities of deaths and despair are still prevalent across the country – far many women are still dying of causes that are preventable, and still one in 22 babies die before the age of one, and one in every 19 children before their fifth birthday.
With FCHVs mobilized across the country, and by banking on this trusted cadre in the community, with more information and education, Nepal can set a post-2015 goal in not only decreasing maternal and child mortality but also other sectors.
For a majority of FCHVs, it’s the impact of their work they see in their community that motivates them to continue their voluntary service. The respect and recognition they have in society further pushes them to do what they’re doing.
In course of time, these women have emerged not only as homemakers but also one of the pillars in strengthening the country’s health system; they’ve also inspired and encouraged another generation of women through their work alongside. And that’s what sets them apart.
STORY: South China Morning Post
Photo feature: Republica The Week E-paper (Page 8 and 9)