On a typical day, Bhetwal Saraswoti is awake by 5:00 am. She spends the early hours working in her fields, feeding her cattle, and making breakfast for her family — all before starting her second job as a Female Community Health Volunteer (FCHV).
FCHVs are familiar figures in Nepal. Since 1988, women in the program have been volunteering their time to provide basic healthcare and health information to villages across the country. Lately, their public health guidance has taken on a new issue: clean cooking.
As part of a pilot project launched by the Clean Cooking Alliance, FCHVs visit homes to monitor blood pressure and blood oxygen levels, encourage the use of clean fuels by discussing their benefits, encourage the disuse of polluting fuels and stoves by discussing their negative impacts, and document the adoption of clean cooking in these homes. They explain the convenience of using clean fuels for cooking along with the health, economic, and lifestyle benefits for the family and community. They also support the sale of clean cooking options — including biogas, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), and electric cookstoves — by meeting with sales agents to enhance their marketing strategies.
Across the world, cooking is a deeply personal and cultural activity learned from our families and communities. From a young age, we are taught what ingredients, tools, techniques, and fuels to use. These cultural and social connections must be acknowledged when asking families to change the way they cook. Thus, working with trained and trusted members of a community can be one way to help ensure the success of a clean cooking intervention. In Nepal, the FCHVs are those trusted voices who help advance clean cooking.
Many of the women serving as FCHVs are farmers who chose to apply to the FCHV program because they are passionate about improving the lives of those in their community. To be selected, they must reside in the neighborhood where they are expected to serve, and be nominated by their peers as a community leader. They are then chosen by the mothers’ group for health (a group of women active in different local social and health activities) and undergo the training necessary to serve as an FCHV.
“I feel honored when community people come to consult me about their health and feel proud that I am able to provide service to the community,” said Mrs. Saraswoti, who serves in Panchkhal. “I felt it is an exceptional opportunity and it was a satisfying experience to be recognized in the community.”
Many FCHVs are also acutely aware of how a lack of access to clean cooking impacts their communities.
“The ceiling [of a home] becomes blackened, as are the women’s lungs. This also increases blood pressure and may lead to pneumonia,” said Dewti Sapkota, an FCHV in Mandandeupur. She went on to say that it brings her joy to see people adopting clean fuels and she wants to “stay involved until everyone [has] converted [to] clean cooking.”
Since the start of the project in February 2018, FCHVs are already noticing that many in their communities have become more receptive to switching to biogas, LPG, and electric cookstoves. What was more surprising to many volunteers was the increased level of respect they received from their peers. Additionally, several husbands of FCHVs have begun to help cook at home to support their wives’ involvement in the project.
Changing cultural and traditional practices poses a complex challenge, particularly when related to something as ingrained as traditional cooking practices. Working jointly with FCHVs provides a clear example of how women community leaders can support the transition to clean cooking for all.
To learn more about the pilot project, click here.