The bumpy road to good health

In rural India, women are learning how to keep their families healthy using new education programs and health savings. (Photo: Community of Practice for Health and Microfinance)

It's a familiar challenge. A minor illness left untreated because of the cost becomes a major health threat. The impact can be especially catastrophic for women and families living in poverty. They now face an even larger health bill, which often wipes out their savings. And chronic poor health limits their ability to work.

For Ranubala, a mother of four in eastern India, it feels like being on nonstop roller coaster. Her family earns very little, making saving difficult. So whenever someone falls ill, she borrows from family and neighbors and cobbles together whatever her family earns to pay for their care. This often means delaying care or finding the cheapest available option, like traditional healers. The personal cost has been huge: Illness has constantly forced her husband and older son to stop working, meaning less money and food for the family. Treatable ailments have persisted, resulting in mounting medical bills.

Almost 90 percent of families in rural India face this dilemma. Despite the government’s efforts to make health care affordable and accessible (and in many cases free), out-of-pocket fees make up the majority of health costs for rural families. 

Grameen Foundation has been working with partners to make healthcare more accessible and affordable for rural families like Ranubala’s. As part of the Maa aur Shishu Swasthya (Mother and Child Health) Program, we work through local self-help groups and village banks to provide health education and to connect the women to local health services, in addition to the financial services they already receive. The self-help groups have also started a special health savings program. More than 170,000 women have already been trained on topics such as anemia, healthy pregnancies, and acute respiratory infections, and almost 16,000 women had begun saving for healthcare costs. 

The women who participate in these programs also help improve health and financial behaviour across their communities by sharing the important lessons they learned in their group meetings.

Ranubala is determined for her family to have the “good life”: eating well, being healthy, being happy and living comfortably in their home. Their persistent health woes and lack of steady income are challenging, but she remains optimistic. Her goal: turning their lives around in five years.