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Ashley Jensen's Save the Children Diary - Delhi, India, September 2011

Posted: 18/01/2012 17:00

There is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for entering the Sanjay colony slum in Delhi. I had never been to India before, let alone one of the largest, most renowned slums in the north east of Delhi. The assault on your senses that India provides is overwhelming.

The soundtrack of car horns, the hot muggy air, vehicles piled up and weighed down with who knows what heading somewhere with purpose, narrowly avoiding the healthy-looking cows that had parked themselves in the middle of the road and were going nowhere. It's busy, it's noisy and it's constantly moving.

My purpose for this trip is to highlight the necessity for health workers in developing countries, in order to educate women on all aspects of childbirth from pre-natal care through to breast feeding, vaccinations, monitoring their babies health and the importance of giving birth in a hospital.

Over 3/4 of all deaths among children under 5 are caused by complications and infections during and shortly after birth, as well as preventable illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, and malaria.

In India alone, 2 million children a year are dying. Save the Children is reaching out to these communities and helping to educate women on the symptoms of childhood illnesses and encouraging them to visit one of the 6 healthcare trucks that come to the slums five days
or week or to attend the healthcare clinic which sets up once a month.

After a journey of around an hour from the little oasis of the hotel we are staying, Pragya, who works for Save the Children in Delhi, and who was acting as a translator, pointed to what I thought was a hill just off the road...

This was the municipal dump, through which children scavenged with magnets for little bits of metal to sell for food.

This was one of the reasons I was compelled to make this trip, after narrating Chotti's story for the Born to Shine TV series which was raising money for Save the Children earlier this year. The story was of a little girl who was still able to smile after telling us how she lives, on her own, under a flyover, with nothing.

Beside the dump and suddenly around the corner we arrived at Sanjay Colony slum, where 60,000 men, women and children live. The streets are about three feet wide with an open sewer running through them.

Children and babies wandered through these narrow unsanitary streets in bare feet, unaware that this was anything out of the ordinary as flies circled and landed on their bodies, in fact so normal is this, that they are not even irritated by the abundance of flies nor are they
offended by the smell that hangs heavy in the air of too many people living too closely with no sanitation.

The children are some of the most beautiful children I have met, with big soulful eyes, tiny babies with black kohl around their eyes (apparently in order to ward off evil spirits) making them appear even more wide eyed. Naive little faces with the most beautiful teeth and when they smiled which they did a lot...their faces filled with life and hope.

I met with Rekha who was humble and dignified, who herself had lived in the slum but was now a health worker. She was passionate about imparting the knowledge she had received herself from health workers she had met, and so with no previous training and a huge capacity to
care and help others, her training was funded by Save the Children in India.

It costs a mere £100 to train a health worker who will have the capacity to help and literally save the lives of thousands of women and children every year. Rekha is now studying for her Masters degree in social work.

The mobile health truck is such a simple idea and to see it in practice, functioning brilliantly, and so well attended was truly inspiring.

We then met with Madhu one of the most beautiful women I have met. She was 21 and pregnant with her third child. As she swept around the corner in an immaculate electric blue sari trimmed with gold and a jewelled bhindi, she looked somewhat incongruous, like a Bollywood starlet on an extremely authentic set where the art director had been given a lot of time and money. Sadly, this is not the case. This is her reality. Lifting her sari a little to avoid the open sewer she led the way into her tiny house which was one room of about 7' by 8'and consisted of not much more than a bed and a few simple functional possessions. It was here she lived with her husband and soon to be three children.

Hearing from Madhu herself how she feels she has benefited from the health worker campaign, knowing that there is someone there to help, advise, administer simple medications like multi vitamins, things that are so readily available to us that we don't think twice about it, or even just to reassure her is a huge comfort to her.

Too many women like the next woman I met, Bhanu, who lived in a less-established neighbouring slum called Bhagwanpura slum, where families lived under structures made of bits of wood and tarpaulin held down with rags and bricks are giving birth in extremely compromised situations with "midwives" from within the community who are untrained and don't really know what they are doing.

Bhanu had complications during the birth of her daughter, the "midwife" told her either she or her daughter would survive, not both. Her daughter was born with blue hands and feet and blood coming from her mouth, she did not survive. The "midwife" disappeared leaving Bhanu on her own to deal with her loss.

In 2011 women should not have to go through a scenario like this, no matter where they are from, but they do and they pick up the pieces and get on with it, because they have to.

Bhanu's loss happened little over a month ago and although still clearly traumatised and numb from what had happened, she was willing to share her experience with us. Unnecessary deaths like this can be prevented.

The healthworkers I met work tirelessly within these hugely populated slums in Delhi educating women on nutrition during pregnancy, breast feeding, birth control, monitoring babies, vaccinating babies, showing them what signs to look for in potentially life threatening illnesses like diahorrea, skin diseases that are left untreated, and pneumonia. India has the highest number of cases of childhood pneumonia in the world often caused by the smoke from cooking in the tiny room which families of up to 10 people spanning 3 generations can live.

It's illnesses such as these that to us, living in the western world are a simple inconvenience, that mean a quick trip to the chemist, but to children in the slum colonies they are a matter of life or death.

It costs £100,000 to run one of the Save the Children health trucks for one year which would save the lives of thousands of children.

These families have nothing...really nothing. Every day is a struggle for survival, and yet the women I met had such dignity and grace, they washed themselves and took pride in their appearance. To see a woman washing her hair or scrubbing her clothes at a public water tap where the water flows for just a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening is quite a humbling experience.

The children played with sticks, tyres, or a piece of polystyrene on a string. They played with each other, they pulled funny faces, they got shy, they got raucous and silly. They have hopes and dreams and needs and wants as much as you or I, and yet despite having nothing they smiled and laughed like children do everywhere, their bright eyes and cheeky little faces full of hope no different from our sons or daughters or brothers or sisters.

Having made this trip to Delhi I have seen that we can make a difference and are making a difference by continuing to support Save the Children.

This post was originally published on 09/19/2011 and is being re-featured for HuffPost Global Motherhood.