For the Benefit of the Community

Experiences from the Bardia Eye Care Program in Nepal

Von Kamal Baral / Schweizerisches Rotes Kreuz SRK

"Now the volunteer work has become part of my life. I feel very happy when I see the patients expressing their joy after regaining sight. They have become very good friends of mine and they are my lucky charms. Many of them invited me for the 'Maghi' festival, but it is difficult for me to find time to visit all of them." (Statement by Mrs. Makuni, an eye care volunteer in the Bardia Eye Care Program).

In the past, trachoma infections the Bardia District in the Mid Western Region of Nepal were endemic. Over 30% of the population was suffering from trachoma infections which in the end can lead to blindness. The Bardia Branch of Nepal Red Cross runs a Primary Eye Care Program supported by the Swiss Red Cross. This program depends on a large number of volunteers, as the Nepal Red Cross operates mostly with volunteer staff.

As it was impossible to reach the population of about 250'000 people living in Bardia District with only one technical member of staff to promote awareness about trachoma infections - that it can potentially lead to blindness and that it can easily be prevented through facial cleanliness as well as family and community hygiene – the branch office decided to mobilize volunteers, so the situation would improve. The continuous dissemination of information on this topic by the volunteers has reduced the trachoma infections in the district population to below 5%, which can be judged a highly successful result.

Selection of volunteers

The selection of volunteers is usually influenced by the level of transparency and information within the community in which the program will be carried out. If the program is community-based and the community knows about the resources of the program, unwanted and opportunist invaders into the volunteer net can be avoided. In the program in Bardia academical skills were no criteria for the selection of volunteers. Their responsibilites and the training package was designed even for people having no formal education. If possible the volunteers are selected out of the same group and ethnicity as the target group. Having a similar background they can more easily motivate the community members for collective work.

The selection of volunteers should be done carefully to avoid bringing ambitous persons into the program that are likely to lose interest after a short time. The training of the selected volunteers is carried out in the community itself. This allows the people living in the community to observe and participate in the training program and the volunteers can be accepted and integrated into the population.

Value of Voluntarism in the Nepalese Society

In Nepal, voluntarism is respected in all communities. To render services to others, especially to disadvantaged or vulnerable is considered one of the most prestigious and responsible contributions to the community. The volunteers are very proud of the fact that they work voluntarily for their community. Because of their work for the community the volunteers are respected by everybody.

The Bardia program experienced that the volunteers are eager for recognition from the community for their voluntary services. Therefore it is very important to include such provisions and possibilities into the programs. This is one of the important approaches to sustain a volunteer’s interest in the program.

Working with Volunteers empowers the community

Mrs. Makuni Tharu is one of the eye care volunteers of the Red Cross Branch Bardia. For her, serving as a Red Cross volunteer has become a part of her life. Mrs. Makuni got the opportunity to assist in a volunteer training program in her village. As part of the training the volunteers experienced being blind by wearing a blindfold. She was interested in learning more about eye care in order to be able to help the affected persons in her community.

Mrs. Makuni is a housewife at her late 50ies with a lot of family responsibilities and a big interest in helping vulnerable people. As she was illiterate it was necessary to make a few special arrangements to train her practically.

After having completed the training she visited many villages disseminating information about what she had learned. During the last 3 years she has accompanied many patients to the Primary Eye Care Centres or the Fateh-Bal Eye Hospital in Nepalgunj. Often she paid the journey (50 km from her village!) with her own money and stayed in the hospital for several days until the patients were discharged. For these outstanding contributions Nepal Red Cross Bardia awarded her with a bicycle on the "World Red Cross Day". Thanks to this bicycle she is now able to reach even remote places. She as well encourages other women to join the team of volunteers and has been successful in several cases.

Mrs. Makuni is visited by many people that ask for her help not only on eye care issues. Especially the women of the community ask her to accompany them to the hospital. She has now also received training on immunization and child-maternal care to be more competent in supporting the people of her community.

Because of her popularity as a volunteer the villagers have appointed her as a community leader for a local political party. Mrs. Makuni says : "I don’t understand anything about the party politics, but people are insistent on me representing them. They have appointed me as the area leader." Now she is frequently invited to local meetings in order to discuss development issues. She says that education empowers people for their work and development.

*Kamal Baral is Head of the eye health outreach program of the Nepal Red Cross