Meet Sudha, a 40-year-old native of Bangalore, India who has worked for the past five years as a garment worker and peer educator at Laj Exports in the Peenya Industrial Zone. Before this job, she worked at another factory for nine years but left to work at Laj Exports after hearing from others that the management invests in the health and well-being of its workers. As a veteran of the apparel sector, Sudha explained that the main health issues facing most female factory workers are menstrual-related, and how happy and proud she is to be a peer educator. In this role under Swasti Health Catalyst’s worker health and well-being program, Sudha discusses health issues such as family planning, financial literacy, nutrition, and other topics with female workers and tells them where to obtain health services.
Growing up in a small village 80 kilometres outside of Bangalore, Sudha was one of many girls who grew up in extreme poverty. She explained that “there were situations where I lived without having any food” and was not aware of her health care needs and rights. After the death of her father when she was just three months old, money was so scarce that Sudha and her mother couldn’t afford to buy salt to flavor vegetables. After this, Sudha left school at age 11 to start working at a nearby farm, earning two rupees everyday. A few months later, she was married to a 16-year-old boy, who is her husband to this day. After six years of marriage, Sudha became pregnant but had an accident that caused her to suffer a miscarriage and lose the baby, leaving permanent damage that has prevented her from having children.
Now, Sudha works as a health and well-being peer educator and enjoys teaching other women about how to take care of their bodies and assert their rights. She explained how she got the role: there was a food competition at the factory where the management asked all employees to prepare healthy food at home based on the nutrition information Swasti was teaching them. She ended up winning first prize, was noticed by all the other workers, and was selected to become a peer educator by her supervisor since all the workers now recognized her as a familiar face and leader. Smiling, she said: “I have the courage and confidence to share information with others.” As a peer educator, one of the main issues that Sudha helps educate other workers on is family planning, teaching women about contraception methods and directing them to the on-site clinic or nearby hospital when needed. She proudly said: “We are educating the workers on what the family planning methods are and where they can go to access.” She further explained that some women workers have become so confident discussing this topic that they sometimes approach the wellness facilitators if they have any questions and can’t wait for the training sessions. Sudha also touched upon how the state of reproductive health has changed since she first started in the apparel sector. “Earlier, yes there were problems and no awareness. Now there is media messaging. These days people are starting to talk about spacing pregnancies.”
Since these factory programs are still relatively new in India, workers like Sudha are sometimes questioned by family and friends who ask, “Are you going to the factory for work, or to learn about health? How will the factory pay for it?” Sudha now has the confidence to tell them that she does both, and that the factory takes care of the costs. She even shares the health information with her family members, including her brother who listens to her when she talks about the importance of spacing families. She noted that her interest in healthcare and educating others wasn’t present in her previous role, where she only cared about earning her salary. At Laj Exports, she loves that in addition to working, she feels respected and learns about a variety of health issues. “This is an opportunity; I’m not just learning but I’m educating many workers,” Sudha said. When questioned about what message she would give to all other factory managers, she said immediately: “There are thousands of workers working in your factories like us. Do these kinds of programs for them, it will help them.”