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How health savings saved a toddler’s life

A night-time loan from her neighbors changed Santana's life.

For most of his short life, Santana’s three-year-old son, Rajib, has faced frequent bouts of illness. With her husband away, working as a day laborer, Santana was used to coping on her own.

But late one night, Rajib fell violently ill with diarrhea and vomiting. Knowing the nearest health center was an hour’s walk away, Santana rushed to the local cycle-van driver to take her son to the center. In that desperate moment, Santana realized she didn’t money to pay for transportation.

Seeing her son’s condition worsen by the minute, Santana cried out in despair. Her neighbor, Renuka, rushed to her side.

Renuka belonged to a self-help group that had set up a health savings fund designed by Grameen Foundation. It provided a cash reserve, and women in the group could borrow money from it to pay for health costs. They would repay their small loans at reasonable rates, and keep one another accountable as a group.

After learning about Santana’s dilemma, Renuka quickly met with the women in her self-help group. They decided to give Santana a small loan so she could take her son to get help. Cash in hand, Santana raced her son to the health center. There, he received oral rehydration therapy overnight, before returning home the next morning.

Santana’s neighbor was able to help because she had the right resources for a health emergency—and she didn’t think twice about sharing those resources. Although Santana also belonged to a self-help group, it had decided against setting up a health savings fund.  At their very next meeting, Santana convinced the group to reverse that decision.

The financial setback of treating a sudden illness—and of being unable to work while ill—is one of the main reasons why families are unable to break through the cycle of poverty. Poor families often don’t have cash on hand to pay for sickness or injury, and medical loans with reasonable interest rates can be hard, and sometimes impossible, to come by.

Working with local partners, Grameen Foundation has helped nearly 1,000 women’s self-help groups to set up health savings plan in just one small part of West Bengal, India.

The program, called Maa aur Shishu Swasthya (Mother and Child Health), funded by Johnson & Johnson, has also tackled anemia, malnutrition, and other crucial health issues, providing education and training for mothers.  The combination of health information and financial services is saving lives and strengthening the hope of mothers and their children in poor rural areas of India.