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Jan 13, 2015

Mobile technology solutions could be a game changer for maternal health: Scribes

Amit   /   Amit Sengupta

Mobile-based technology solutions are saving lives by informing and connecting communities with vital public services and health systems.

These solutions are being used across, ranging from poorest and remote communities in Africa to socially marginalised communities in South Asia, including India.

As India continues to post dismal performance on maternal health, an extensive application of mobile based community focused interface could be harnessed for community driven projects and may well prove to be a game changer.

This opinion came up sharply at a recent media workshop organised by Women’s Features Services and Oxfam India in Bhubaneswar on 13 December, 2014.

The media consultation with a group comprising national, regional and district level journalists gathered to discuss how media could play its vital role in accentuating maternal health programmes. Senior journalist and health communication specialists from New Delhi, Kolkata and Bhubaneswar participated in the half-day consultation.

Ajitha Menon, former bureau chief of Asian News International, West Bengal said: “We have to look at the use of radio and mobile technology in reaching out to community, and how these interventions can be useful especially for mothers and improving their healthcare.”

On being asked how mobile phones with internet can be a life savior for women living in remote areas, the senior journalist said: “Smartphone with internet reach is still not permeated at the grassroots level; in this scenario, mobile based messaging services is crucial to disseminate information to mothers in villages. Generally, community members would not like to pay for accessing the messages through mobile phones. Service providers have to look into these aspects as well.”

Ritu Bhatia, public health communication specialist and columnist reiterated: “Health messages delivered through smart phones have been successfully tested in Malaysia. We can learn from them.”

Quite interestingly, Oxfam and one of its partners Jan Swasthya Sahyog have been using mobile-based software ‘Mahatari Swara’ in Chhattisgarh, and helping in connecting with pregnant women and lactating mothers living in remote areas. The mobile interface provides audio recording facilities to the callers and record vital information related to their pregnancy while allowing them to convey experiences of getting health facilities through public health centres. People can use this technology to essentially give a real-time feedback and hence it is proving to be an useful tool for accountability of government health facilities in their district.

Saradha Lahangir, bureau chief, ANI, Odisha said: “We can think of training people from the community to write and report on such vital issues. It is not always possible for mainstream media to give adequate coverage to stories from districts and here the role of community media is crucial in reaching out and engaging with people in rural areas.”

“Oxfam is implementing the UK Aid funded maternal health project in Odisha. We use community based radio programmes, engage with media at large, tie-up with public broadcasting agency Doordarshan and also mobilise public through campaigning. This is essential to reach out to as many cross sections of people as possible. We also engage with youth during our campaigns,” said Akshaya Biswal, regional manager, Oxfam India, Odisha.

Deliberating on the role of media in communicating pertinent social – development issues, Ajitha said: “We rarely try to communicate to the target beneficiary, what their entitlements are. Media’s role is to make information dissemination as widely as possible.”

“There is a general tendency in mainstream media houses to ignore community based stories and issues. This is a constant struggle and needs to be persistently pursued,” observed Ajitha, while adding: “There is a subtle balance between the role of a media personnel and grassroot activism. In India, we have political reporters and editors who are doing political activism besides their role as journalists. It is a personal choice.”

Rakhee Bakshee, director, Women’s Feature Services said: “Media often waits for a large-scale event to cover issues e.g. Chhattisgarh sterilisation deaths. After a couple of weeks after the incident, the issue moved away from the front pages of newspapers and prime time television channels.”

Folk media is also an effective, inexpensive way of interacting and communicating with people in rural areas, felt the media persons. “Puppetry, folk dance and community-based cultural troupes are highly effective forms of inter-personal communication and leaves a lasting impression on people in rural areas,” said Rakhee.

The author is programme coordinator – campaigns in Oxfam India, New Delhi office and tweets at @Aidlabs

By Amit Sengupta

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