Over the past five years, Patil has trained hundreds of ASHAs from various states to use WhatsApp to debunk false information.
Maya Patil, an ASHA from Kutwad village in Maharashtra, says she has noticed similar positive results after using WhatsApp. She has been working in the field for 13 years and in 2018 she met a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy with falling hemoglobin levels who had recently been diagnosed with anemia. She tried to put the woman in touch with the relevant public doctor, but the family wanted her to use natural methods to increase her hemoglobin levels.
Patil asked the pregnant woman to start drinking pomegranate juice, which has been proven to increase hemoglobin levels, but her mother said pomegranate juice causes kidney stones. Patil spent hours trying to explain the science, but the family was neither convinced nor interested in anemia medication.
Out of habit, Patil had photographed hundreds of regional newspaper articles covering common misinformation about health and written by doctors. In one, she found details about the benefits of pomegranate seeds and juice. She sent the pregnant woman the article in a WhatsApp message. Then she found more relevant YouTube videos shot in Marathi, the language of women. After 10 such posts, she finally made an impact; the family allowed the woman to follow her advice, and within 12 days her hemoglobin level had risen.
They worked together for three weeks and when the woman gave birth it was a normal delivery with a healthy six and a half pound newborn.
Creating a safer space for women
Although they had successfully addressed much misinformation over several years, many ASHAs still saw pregnant women who were too afraid to talk about their pregnancy for fear of their in-laws and husbands. Even in large ASHA-led group messages, many men in the community responded with “ill-informed comments,” said Netradipa Patil, the ASHA union leader.
Maya Patil similarly deplores the persistence of dangerous medical information passed on by family. “The primary purpose of any fake news related to pregnancy is to make women suffer,” she says. “Many older women say they went through these rituals during their pregnancy, so why shouldn’t the next generation face this?”
So in 2018 and 2019, ASHAs started forming hyper-local WhatsApp groups for women only. With a smaller group of only 15 to 20 pregnant women and their closest wife relatives, Netradipa Patil would focus on helping them understand the scientific aspects of care. “It was hard, but easier than dealing with hundreds of people at once.” In fact, after six months of test drives, women in the groups reported talking about misinformation in their household.