Covid-19 has exacerbated many existing challenges and deep inequities already at play in Nepal. These include hunger, malnutrition, and misinformation about breastfeeding.
Helen Keller Intl’s programs connect with thousands of women across the country. They serve nearly 60% of Nepal through innovative methods — many of which have been adapted for Covid-19 lockdowns.
This week, we spoke with Pooja Pandey Rana, who is the Deputy Chief of Party for the Suaahara program of Helen Keller in Nepal. She shared some of the daunting challenges that Covid-19 has created, and her sources of optimism and inspiration.
You’ve been in the field for 20+ years, and at Helen Keller for 15. What inspired you to want to do this work?
It’s the people, for me. Early in my career I lived in a rural community in Nepal for two years working on health research. Many of these women didn’t have enough food to eat. Still, they would invite us to their homes for a cup of tea. To see their resilience and their desire to progress made me want to do more.
What are some of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 in Nepal?
Covid-19 has disrupted the lives and livelihoods of millions of Nepalese people. It has been extremely challenging for poor households. In Nepal it’s very common for men to migrate in search of work — their remittances to family members at home in Nepal account for almost one third of our gross domestic product (GDP). That means that women typically run the household without the support of their husbands. Due to the pandemic, a lot of these men have lost their jobs and returned home. This has added stress to many rural households, both from the loss of income and from the high levels of anxiety. Gender-based violence has been increasing.
Four months of lockdown also means that village farmers couldn’t get the supplies they needed. Women feared going to health facilities to access services. Helen Keller facilitates community and group-based programs that were paused, which created a lack of social connection.
Food insecurity has increased, as food prices have risen and household incomes have been affected by job loss.
Can you share more about how Covid-19 is impacting health and nutrition in Nepal?
A lot was at stake for children and moms even before the pandemic, and Covid-19 has worsened this in many ways. Before Covid, consumption of nutritious but expensive foods like eggs and milk was already low. Now, prices of these foods have doubled. So that becomes the first thing that families let go of when money is tight.
There’s also a lot of misinformation about breastfeeding. One of the top concerns early on in the pandemic was, “Can I breastfeed? Is it safe? Could I pass on the virus to my baby?” Mothers were scared to breastfeed, but if mothers resorted to baby formula, they would inadvertently put their babies’ immunity and development at risk. One of our early actions was to get the word out to mothers’ groups and families with whom we work that breastfeeding was safe and perhaps the single most important health action they could take for their babies.
The UN estimated that an additional 60,000 children are at risk of malnutrition because of Covid, so it has really exacerbated a situation with already high stakes.
In Nepal, what are some ways Helen Keller is meeting this growing need?
In Nepal, we improve nutrition and health through integrated family planning, agriculture, and other programs. We have thousands of volunteers across Nepal — primarily female leaders that support their peers. Even during the pandemic, we mobilized 30,000 volunteers who in just 2 days dosed 2 million children with vitamin A supplements to strengthen vision and immune systems. Helen Keller provided safety equipment like masks, hand sanitizer, and tools, and transported the capsules. But it was the volunteers’ unwavering dedication and determination that made this happen. Hearing these stories motivates me. Helen Keller programs cover almost 60% of Nepal, so if we are successful we can make an enormous impact.
What are other ways you’ve adapted to the challenges of Covid-19 and have been responsive in your program areas?
Many parts of Nepal are very remote. Helen Keller has long prioritized program methods that connect women and build a strong sense of sisterhood. One of the ways we do this is through community groups.
Even in these remote rural communities, because so many men are abroad working, 90% of Nepali people have a cell phone. Helen Keller has seen cell phones as a huge opportunity. We were already connecting with our participants on cell phones with text reminders before the pandemic, but soon after lockdown, Helen Keller went completely cellular. Using phone numbers from 11 million households, we started calling women and asking about their concerns. This was one of the ways we knew women had been wondering how safe it was to breastfeed their babies. We have now been using multiple digital platforms to maintain two-way communication with women.
We modified our popular radio program, called Panchin Amma, or Mothers Know Best, by adding a live component called “Hello Mommies.” This new segment invites stories from moms and includes nurses and other experts who answer questions about breastfeeding, health, and nutrition. It is broadcast by 150 radio stations, as well as on Youtube and social media, all with the message that breastfeeding is the most nutritious food a mom can give her young baby. We’ve attracted a lot of listeners, which provides us an opportunity to link women with many other services, including counseling hotlines, government social protection programs, and more.
Helen Keller brings that human connection. Whether it is an in-person mothers’ group or a radio program, it’s all about developing social and behavioral changes — small doable actions that allow women to thrive.
As a woman leader, what have you learned about managing a team during this time?
I’ve found that I’ve been more open with my team about sharing my struggles. Social distancing has been hard — I am working from home while homeschooling two kids and taking care of my aging mother. I found that it has been powerful to share this with my team. It gave them courage and strength to see that they are not alone in their challenges.
I also got inspired listening to their stories. I want to do more and do better for my team.
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What keeps you optimistic and inspired during these difficult times?
I’m really hopeful and so inspired by the women we serve. Despite their struggles, they move bravely forward.
Women in Nepal have faced so much in recent years – an insurgency, earthquakes and now Covid-19. When I meet these women and hear their stories, I find that they haven’t given up and they are strong, resourceful, and aspirational. They keep me going.
Also, we’ve got a great team at Helen Keller — more than 200 staff at the district level, and thousands more who are frontline workers and volunteers — and they inspire me too.
Tell us about your experience as a woman working to impact the lives of other women.
Soon after I joined Helen Keller, I had my two children. This meant that I needed to practice what I preached and be a model for the women we serve.
We talk so much in our programs about exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. When I had my own children, I felt for so many of these women, because it was really tough for me. I only got two months of maternity leave, so I was coming to work with my baby to breastfeed. It gave me a lot of empathy, and it made me realize that knowledge is not enough. You need a support system. It’s the same thing for every woman in the world, and that really helped me get a broader perspective on how we do programming. We have to think beyond only technical interventions. Having that experience and hearing stories of women helped me shape a lot of our program activities. Making these personal connections is so important and that’s what motivates me.