In Australia, it’s easy to take access to a good public health service for granted. Not to mention access to such basic needs as safe, clean toilets and sanitary products. Not so for many women in India.

“For women in India, some of these things are just not present,” explains Kristina Keneally, a former New South Wales premier who is now a council member of micro-finance organisation Opportunity International Australia and a champion of the organisation’s new program to address female health issues and empower women in India, Women4Women India.

Kristina Keneally Opportunity International

Opportunity International Australia council member Kristina Keneally meeting with women in India. PICTURE: Opportunity International Australia.

“That’s what I love about this Women4Women program. It’s some of the most empowered women in the world – as we are in Australia – using our resources to help empower women in some of the most disadavantaged areas of the world and to help them take control of their lives, to help them take control of their finances and their health, so that their daughters have a great chance at life.”

- Kristina Keneally

“[I]f you’re a girl and you’re fortunate enough to go to school to India, you still have to spend a few days at home when you’re having your menstrual cycle. If you’re a woman and you need to use a toilet, sometimes you have to wait hours…because it’s not safe for you to go in there alone.”

Women4Women India aims to raise $400,000 from Australian women to train female community health leaders in poor areas across India who can in turn pass on that knowledge to others.

“They go about teaching women in their community about simple life-changing behaviours – using sanitary napkins - and in some places making sanitary napkins, about breast-feeding and vaccination and also providing micro-loans to build toilets and clean water supply,” says Ms Keneally, who has been a supporter of Opportunity International since leaving the NSW premier's office in March, 2011, and who has since visited India with the organisation several times.

“One community health leader can help transform an entire community – perhaps as many as 200 women in her community. We see this as a massive investment into one woman who can then turn around and make some significant changes in her community.”

While the program of training female community health leaders, which also covers such issues as giving birth in hospitals and how to use rehydration salts and mosquito nets, is already established in India, Ms Keneally says that the partnership with Opportunity International is aimed at “giving it some scale”.

Opportunity is seeking 800 Australian women to each support the program of training female community health leaders with a $500 donation by 31st December. Groups of women are welcome to come together to raise $500 as a team.

Many of the women taking part in the program have already been able to help their families escape poverty through the use of micro-finance loans, funds for which have been provided by Opportunity International Australia.

“(They) have already taken themselves and their families out of crushing poverty…" notes Ms Keneally. "Now we’re giving them the opportunity to have an ongoing job and one that helps them become respected in (their) community…and to then change the lives of other women…”

Opportunity sees improving the health of women in India through Women4Women as a key step forward in empowering women within their communities.

“It’s really very simple things to explain to people how to best improve their health and the health of their children which then, of course, allows them to go on and do other things like seek employment, seek education or indeed seek opportunities that come through micro-finance…" says Ms Keneally. "We all need health and shelter and, in many cases, we know from our work in India…what women are lacking is access to basic health and information and services and advice.”

She says that when women in India – who often face considerable obstacles in many areas of life - are empowered to become community health leaders, “their view of themselves is changed and often the view of their family and their community is changed”.

“I have seen, over and over in India, women who have started businesses with micro-finance loans or become leaders in their community by taking up the health leader vision, their husband’s respect for them transforms…and their children are respected in the community because they go to school. They’re now seen as leaders and trusted – that’s a transformation.”

“That’s what I love about this Women4Women program. It’s some of the most empowered women in the world – as we are in Australia – using our resources to help empower women in some of the most disadavantaged areas of the world and to help them take control of their lives, to help them take control of their finances and their health, so that their daughters have a great chance at life.”

https://au.opportunity.org/groups/women4women