2020-21 – the year that our world, as we know it, changed. The Covid-19 pandemic may be the biggest challenge we have seen, ever! But, it has also given us a lot to learn from. I saw how we, the people can really make a greater impact when we come together. I am also greatly appreciative of my entire team at SNEHA (Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action), more so, as they stood up to the challenge of being in lockdown for virtually a year. From mobilising resources to ensure that our communities got food rations, masks, sanitizers, gloves, fresh fruits and vegetables, to even supporting the government frontline workers, assisting them to conduct Covid-19 surveys and awareness sessions on Covid-19 precaution, SNEHA has always stood by as a strong pillar of support!
I never ever dreamt about moving to the social sector. A private banker by profession, I was thinking of setting up a hospital with my husband or getting into organic farming! Then I received a call from SNEHA’s founder, Dr. Armida Fernandez, requesting me to assist the team at SNEHA with raising funds, since they were doctors and had no experience in fundraising!
I vividly recall my first meeting at SNEHA – Dr. Fernandez, along with the then SNEHA COO and two other volunteers who had several years of experience in the development sector. I was not sure what I, a private banker by profession, could contribute amongst these experienced people! But it was a field visit that completely changed my view. Having lived in Mumbai all my life, I had never walked deep into any of this city’s slums. I was taken to Dharavi to visit SNEHA’s Day Care Centre where they addressed cases of severe and moderately malnourished children. What I saw there shook me. Here I was, working just three kilometres away in Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai’s high-end business district, unaware of the absolutely deplorable conditions these mothers and their babies were living in. At the SNEHA Centre, I saw babies who were listless and malnourished.
That first site visit built my resolve to support SNEHA as a volunteer to help them raise funds. After two years of volunteering, Dr. Fernandez asked me to join as CEO, since SNEHA’s then CEO wanted to move on. Having no background in public health or in the development sector, I wondered what I could contribute to the organization. But it was the gentle coaxing of Dr. Fernandez, a few SNEHA Board members and the then CEO that made me decide to take a risk and I agreed to a ‘trial’ period of three months. It’s been eight years as CEO and I now identify myself as much with the development sector as I did to the corporate sector, while I was there. Over the next few years, I focused on strengthening governance systems at SNEHA, raising funds to expand our work, build a network of donors and connect with other NGO leaders and learn from them.
In the past two decades, SNEHA has achieved many milestones. We implemented India’s largest urban Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) programme (2012-16) in Dharavi creating a model for addressing urban malnutrition for children aged 0-3 years; we scaled our maternity referral system from one to seven Municipal Corporations around Mumbai and served over 70,000 high risk pregnant women in labour (2005-2016); we were chosen as ‘Mother NGO’ by the National Health Mission, Maharashtra to form 9,000 women’s health committees in vulnerable slum communities across 95 urban cities of Maharashtra (2016-18), we launched a cluster randomised controlled trial in partnership with University College London on community interventions for prevention of violence against women and girls (2018-22) and we were appointed as the “Implementing Agency” by the Department of Women & Child Development, under the chairmanship of the Hon. Collector, Mumbai, to run Mumbai’s first “One Stop Centre (OSC)”, which, as the name suggests, provides all services at one place to women and children survivors of violence (2019-21).
But the true test came in 2020, with the global COVID-19 pandemic completely changing everything. The only thing we knew was that our communities needed us the most! Moreover, I also had to be mindful of the safety and security of SNEHA’s staff itself. As our interventions and capacity building sessions moved online, I was surprised and proud to see how our SNEHA team and our beneficiaries proved their resilience – taking charge of not only themselves but also of their communities. Most of our community members, supported by our SNEHA team and our donors, managed to provide essential supplies to vulnerable people in the most crucial times.
Similarly, during the second wave of the pandemic, after we had to stop our on-field activities which we had resumed slowly, our SNEHA team is back to support our communities! We have been working closely with government health systems to raise awareness about the second wave of the pandemic, emphasizing the need to follow Covid-19 precautions. Our Community Organizers and volunteers are working with government bodies to conduct Covid-19 fever camps and educating community members who may be hesitant to take the vaccination and about possible symptoms after taking the vaccine, apart from reiterating the importance of using of masks, sanitizers and gloves. We have also rallied support among our donors and have provided timely assistance to the local municipal corporations in and around Mumbai by providing PPE kits, masks, gloves, sanitizers and even deep freezers for sorting the vaccine doses.
It is this experience that makes me proud to be a part of SNEHA, especially working side-by-side with our strong community leaders and our government frontline workers, who have showed us that leaders need not come only from Boardrooms, they can be found anywhere as long as there is commitment, self-confidence and a whole lot of support!
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Vanessa D’Souza has served as CEO of SNEHA since March 2013. She won the coveted Citicorp Chairman’s Service Excellence Award in 1989 for exemplary performance. She holds a Bachelors (Honours) degree in Economics and a postgraduate degree in Management with a specialization in Marketing. She was a Dasra Social Impact Fellow in 2015. She has been a recipient of the Mother Teresa Social Leadership Scholarship, to attend the Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management Programme at Harvard Business School in 2017.