Armida Fernandez~ Living for a cause!
The founder trustee of SNEHA, social worker Armida Fernandez has tirelessly been directing her efforts towards reorienting and reorganizing the limited resources of India's public health system, introducing efficient programs to improve the maternal and neo-natal health care facilities, especially for the low-income families. Let's hear her share her experiences and ideals :
1. How would you describe the "woman", Armida Fernandez.
The woman Armida is strong, compassionate, determined, extremely hardworking ,practical , and trusts God. She loves nature, animals and babies. My weaknesses are that I am sensitive, I find it difficult to say no, and I am not well organised.
2. Who have been your role models in life?
My role models - my parents. My mother fought for the cause of women 60 years ago and taught me my faith and the love of God. My father, a professor, spent his lifetime teaching English, worked very hard but never for money . My parents were extremely charitable, gave away the little they had, inculcated in us the right values and treated all people as equals.
3. What motivated you to take up the causes of child care, maternal health and prevention of violence against women and children?
When I finished medicine I wanted to join the medical missionaries and started working in a small town in Dharwar with them. I found it difficult to diagnose paediatric problems and so decided to do post graduation in paediatrics. When I started working in Sion hospital after my post graduation the mortality in newborn babies was extremely high which made me focus on neonates. If you have to save newborn lives one has to make sure the mother is healthy. It seems to boil down to the challenge of saving the difficult patients. Sion hospital had a large number of battered and burnt women admitted into the hospital. One day a six week baby was admitted who was raped. That day I decided that when I start working in the slums I would work against violence as well.
4. With what mission and vision in mind did you lay the foundation of SNEHA?
I joined Sion Hospital (a municipal hospital and medical college) because I wanted to work for the poor. That was my primary mission. I think my second mission is to save lives. After spending many years in the intensive care units of the hospital I realised that if babies had to be saved it was necessary to begin work right from their homes and communities and that's when I decided to work in the slums with a mission to improve the health and nutrition of women and children in the slums of Mumbai.
5. What has been the most rewarding experience in your journey so far?
I can't think of just one rewarding experience. There have been several. Like I mentioned earlier I took up Neonatology because the mortality rates were extremely high. I used low cost simple measures and brought down the mortality rates- it was a huge reduction and very rewarding. In 1989 I started the first Human Milk Bank at Sion hospital. Since then all babies born in the hospital and brought there receive only human milk. No animal or formula milk is used and there are 12,000 to 14, 000 babies born in the hospital. This has been very fulfilling as well. I started SNEHA in 1999 with one social worker. Today we have a very professionally run organisation with over 400 workers – it is very fulfilling. What makes me really happy is to watch all these women in the organisation, the women they work in the slums - changed and empowered - it's a real metamorphosis and very rewarding too.
6. Where do you see SNEHA five years down the line?
I see SNEHA as a resource centre for urban health for women and children in the next 5 years. We would have already incubated models of health that could be taken to scale. We would continue to do research and train other organizations in urban health. Our work and our staff would inform policy for urban health as well. Health includes nutrition and mental health where violence against women is included.
7. How do you feel India can improve its condition of women's and children's health?
India has a long way to go. Unless the social structure changes and women are moved centre stage their health will never be given priority. Education of girls is a good start. The public health system including planned systems for the urban poor should be strengthened and their quality improved. The focus should be primary care- to include maternal newborn care, immunization, nutrition. The country should be flooded with Auxiliary nurse midwives who would be trained in delivery and maternal care and primary health care- to overcome the problem of medical personnel. The various programs already started by the government for women and children should be closely monitored to ensure it serves the right populations and funds judiciously utilized. The laws against dowry, marriages below 18 etc. should be strictly enforced. Women's groups, microcredit groups, women's federations should also focus on health.
8. What would your advice be to the women out there to ensure maternal health, child nutrition and reproductive health?
My advice to women would be to wake up ,believe in themselves and fight for their rights - to be educated , access to food , get married when they choose, decide the number of children they want , work outside the home if they choose too etc. They have the power, all they need to do is to learn how to grab it. Exactly what I would say to the woman out there.
9. What is your idea of woman empowerment? Are you glad to be a woman?
I am happy and proud to be a woman . I was empowered from childhood . I had 5 brothers but was treated as First among equals , made my own choices and decisions . I felt respected as a woman and when I saw the plight of other women I could feel their dis empowerment which made me want to do something about it. As a woman I feel I am in a good position to bring about change in the family and at the workplace and beyond.