Category: Health Magazine, Winter 2024

Title:Focusing on sustainable health solutions in rural India

Author: Heather Wilpone-Welborn
Date Published: February 8, 2024
women in traditional Indian saris stand in a pink room
Co-Presidents Shreya Arora (H’24, seated second from left) and Sanchi Gupta (C’24, seated far right), and Co-VP of Finance Sresth Viswanathan (C’24, seated far left) sitting with participant women from Project RISHI’s Lucky Shakti Leaf anemia elimination project in Amritpura village (Beawar, Rajasthan). They are also accompanied by their GSVS partner Anita Singh (far right, standing). Photos: Courtesy of RISHI

Through their student-run organization, Project RISHI (Rural India Social and Health Improvement), Georgetown undergraduate students including those from the School of Health and the College of Arts & Sciences are partnering with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address population health problems such as anemia and malnutrition through education and the use of sustainable health products.

“We work directly with people in villages to identify problems and create effective and sustainable solutions,” says global health major Shreya Arora (H’24), who co-founded the organization at Georgetown in Fall 2020.

Arora and Sanchi Gupta (C’24) say several RISHI members share South Asian heritage, and they wanted to find a way to both connect with their culture and pursue public health projects.

“I went to high school in southern India, where I worked with an orphanage for girls with physical and mental disadvantages,” says Gupta, an economics and mathematics major who is co-president along with Arora. “When I came to Georgetown I was looking for an outlet to continue to work on issues relevant for women and children in India, so when I found RISHI, I was all in.”

Connecting shared culture with a cause

RISHI receives considerable support from Georgetown’s Social Innovation and Public Service Fund (SIPS), which allocates approximately $60,000 in annual award money to student-led projects that further the Jesuit value of service to others.

RISHI used the SIPS funds to collaborate on projects with Gramin Avam Samajik Vikas Sanstha (GSVS), an NGO based in Rajasthan. Members of the executive committee visited the region with SIPS funds in May.

“During the trip, we made time to not only connect with GSVS about our ongoing projects, but we also had the opportunity to think through future projects,” says Arora.

One possible future project RISHI explored joining is a GSVS goat-rearing initiative in the Piplaz and Fatehgarh villages aimed at providing female migrant workers a sustainable vocational alternative to working in the hazardous mineral grinding industry, the dominant employer in the area.

three college students teach young children
Arora, Gupta, and Viswanathan serving lunch to children at a GSVS-run daycare center for children of migrant families. Photo: Courtesy of RISHI

“There are very limited opportunities for employment in the region,” explains Gupta. “Rearing goats provides these women with an alternative income. After an initial investment in the goats, the migrant women are able to milk them and sell their meat in markets.”

Arora, Gupta, and Sresth Viswanathan (C’24), a RISHI co-VP of finance, also met with local women in the villages near Rajasthan to hear firsthand about the success of their ongoing projects involving women’s menstrual health and the prevalence of anemia in the region.

“When I came to Georgetown I was looking for an outlet to continue to work on issues relevant for women and children and India, so when I found RISHI, I was all in.”

—Sanchi Gupta (C’24)

Finding the sustainable solution

For their inaugural project, RISHI partnered with EcoFemme, a women-led nonprofit based in Tamil Nadu, to distribute reusable cloth pads and host educational sessions for women about their menstrual cycle.

“There’s really a stigma and a silence around menstruation in rural India, and we’re working to create a safe space for women to have these important health conversations and feel empowered to make choices about their menstruation,” says Arora. “We’ve worked with over 150 women so far and distributed over 450 reusable pads.”

The reusable cloth pads last for several years and fulfill RISHI’s goal of finding sustainable, lasting health solutions.

under a blue sky, a man in a green shirt stands at the edge of a lake
Viswanathan offering water to Hindu Lord Brahma at the famous Brahma Temple in Pushkar. Photo: Courtesy of RISHI

“The pads can also be folded in a way where when they are hung out to dry, it does not look like a menstrual pad, so women are less ashamed to use the product in an area where it’s still taboo to talk about menstruation,” Gupta says.

Lucky Shakti Leaf and future plans

Last year, RISHI partnered with Lucky Iron Fish, a Canadian social enterprise, on another project to help improve low iron levels in women in rural Rajasthan through a unique cooking tool.

“The population near Rajasthan doesn’t have access to a lot of leafy greens, and the diet tends to be very dry, so it is hard to get iron from food,” said Gupta.

“We saw how it impacts their lives. The women and their children who are anemic are really tired and prone to fainting,” Arora says. “We worked with Lucky Iron Fish to rebrand as Lucky Shakti Leaf for the Indian market. The fish is not as appealing to the large vegetarian population in India.”

Thirty anemic women were selected for an initial pilot program where they received their cooking leaf after a workshop demonstrating how the tool can be added to any acidified boiling liquid to infuse a meal with iron.

“The leaves will last for five years and are sustainable and healthy,” explains Gupta. “We heard from women directly on our trip that when using the leaf consistently, they fainted less, felt less dizzy, and had an increased appetite.”

For their next project, RISHI is looking to collaborate with GSVS on addressing child malnutrition in the area by providing nutrient dense packets to families.

“Being in the villages brought a sense of satisfaction for me in serving women from my culture,” says Gupta. “I am really proud of the work we are doing.”

More Stories

a man and a woman with binoculars look for birds in bright autumn foliage

Photo: Lisa Helfert How nurse-bioethicist Christine Grady (N’74, G’93) and her husband, new faculty member Anthony Fauci, live their commitment to public service, health, and each other In May 2023,…

a group of people stands in

The world is facing a silent but growing public health crisis—a decline in mental health and well-being. People’s experiences of negative emotions, such as sadness, worry, stress, and anger, have…

three women sit on a couch and two women stand behind them

Co-authors of The Game Plan: A Woman’s Guide to Becoming a Doctor and Living a Life in Medicine: (seated, left to right) Jessica Osborn, M.D.; Leah Matthews, M.D., MPH; Angela C.B.