Sitara Devi is only 18 years old.
Ever since arriving in Mumbai as a fresh bride a year ago, Sitara leads a lonely existence in a very crowded city. Her husband travels for work 14 hours a day, leaving her to tend to the household chores and make new friendships within the slum community. Although she probably aches for her family back home, Sitara stays busy trying to make do with the 8,000 rupees (about $125) her husband earns every month.
Recently, Sitara discovered that she is pregnant. She is now one of millions of young Indian women living in the burgeoning Indian slums who have access to public healthcare facilities, but no knowledge of when and how to utilize them.
For many women residing in far-flung rural areas, access to healthcare is a challenge. Every 10 minutes, an Indian woman dies in childbirth. Close to 150 die every day. Over 300, 000 babies die within the first 24 hours of being born, more than 1 every 2 minutes. Moreover, the majority of these deaths are preventable.
Women like Sitara, who resides in an urban slum, have access to healthcare facilities in the form of municipal hospitals, outposts or government community health workers. Unfortunately, getting women like Sitara Devi to know why maternal healthcare is important, and when and how to access these facilities, is a challenge.
India's exploding mobile penetration offers a platform to send important messages and encourage health-seeking behaviors within target populations. Initiatives such as Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action ("MAMA") aim to empower new and expectant mothers with health information so that she has the knowledge she needs to make healthy decisions and take action. Founded in 2011, MAMA is of a global public private partnership with USAID, Johnson & Johnson, United Nations Foundation, Health Alliance, and BabyCenter.
I live in Mumbai, where I trained as a physician and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for several years. Being with MAMA over the last year has brought me closer to patients, like Sitara, than I was when I saw patients in my government hospital training. I thought I understood what conditions were like for slum-dwellers., yet was shocked when I visited these areas. Some of them are only a few kilometers from my home.
What strikes me besides the squalor in these areas is the vibrant buzz within them. The women are hardworking, and even if only semi-literate, capable of making intelligent choices about work and family. They just need the best information to make the right decisions. Programs such as MAMA can provide such information. And this gives me a lot of hope.
This week, MAMA announced its India partnership at the India Business Forum. Organized by GBC Health in partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry, the Reliance Foundation, the International Center for Research on Women, the American India Foundation, the UN Foundation, the MDG Health Alliance, and Johnson & Johnson, this event was a call-to-action for the private sector to increase efforts to improve health in India.
MAMA India aims to reach at least 1 million new and expectant mothers with mobile messages, starting with women living in the urban slums of Mumbai. MAMA will partner with ARMMAN, a Mumbai based NGO and Dasra, a strategic philanthropy organization.
The MAMA program is aimed at women such as Sitara Devi, the proud owner of an inexpensive handset, which she uses mainly to receive calls from her husband. More and more women like her now have their own mobile handsets in India. In the same way they have changed social connectivity and rural livelihoods in India, mobile phones have the promise of making healthcare nearer and better for all - just what India needs to deliver better health for the millions of young women living in urban slums.
As her pregnancy progresses, Sitara Devi can now receive health information every week that she can identify with, in a language she can understand, in the privacy and comfort of her own home. Thanks to this technology, Sitara does not need to feel scared anymore.