Challenges involved in Communicating Health Science to rural India

Women still pray and bargain with God to bear a male child

We are in the 21st century when research in health and medical science has reached new heights. Newer technologies are abundant but health care for the rural population in India needs to become simpler and offer practical health solutions. The rural-urban divide poses a major challenge to providing health services. We need low-tech health innovations that do not compromise effectiveness. But this is not just one problem: there is a whole list!

In India, 70% of the population is rural.  People speak 22 different Indian languages in varied dialects all across the country. Although the national language is Hindi and urban populations are fluent in English, there are others who have a communication problem.  This means that we need to communicate in the language of our people located in each different state. Each state needs science communication in its own language to reach out to its society.

Another major challenge that the Indian population faces, is the influence of superstitions and myths. Not only in villages and towns, but also in the cities, people still believe in superstitions. There was a time when people thought that idols of Ganesh, the Elephant God, were drinking milk. Sadhus and seers perform ‘yagnas’ to appease the rain God to ensure a good monsoon season. Women still pray and bargain with God to bear a male child: “I will offer you five coconuts if my daughter delivers a son”. Ideally they should be praying for a healthy child, be it a girl or boy!

People stop and wait if a black cat runs into their path. In many families, arranged marriages happen only after matching horoscopes of the boy and the girl, instead of matching their Rh factor or whether he/she carries HIV.  Every event is said to be dependent on the movement of stars and zodiac signs in the sky.  All these beliefs are ingrained into the minds of people, which can be erased only with public understanding of science.

snakebites kill 46,000 people in India every year

Alternate therapies to those of medical science are used, even though they have no scientific evidence. Even now, people put faith in quacks, witch doctors, and unregistered medical personnel who call themselves doctors. Let me give one example here: according to the Million Death Study by the Registrar General of India, snakebites kill 46,000 people in India every year with 97 per cent of them occurring in rural areas. There is little awareness about the medical research and treatments for snakebites. The villagers depend upon age-old medicines and quackery. Anti-snake venom (ASV) is a potential life saver. There is a need for venom detection kits to treat snakebites with the specific anti-venom for each particular snake.

Most importantly, sanitation, cleanliness and hygiene are not up to the mark. I have traveled to many countries and I have never had a problem anywhere in the world to find a clean toilet. I can move around for the whole day, sightsee or shop without needing my own bathroom. We do have “Sulabh Sauchalays” – the paid toilets – here, but they are not enough for such a large population. It is difficult to find a clean toilet on the road especially when you are traveling across the country.

Women in India still use cloth pads during their menstrual cycle. Sanitary napkins for many are unaffordable. In 2014, Arunachalam Murugantham, from southern India, revolutionized menstrual health for rural women. He invented a simple machine to make cheap sanitary pads. Today NGO’s are employing women in the sanitary napkin-making process, thus, giving them jobs as well. Tampons are unheard of in rural India.

Maternal health and childcare in villages still needs a boost especially with communicable and non-communicable diseases being rampant.  With monsoon comes the most common illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever from mosquito bites, and stomach ailments because of low personal hygiene, and consuming contaminated food and water. Cities, too, are not spared from the wrath of monsoon illnesses. Essentially, these are all preventable illnesses with a little bit of health knowhow and precautions.

Waste disposal is yet another challenge for both rural and urban population. With the advent of plastics, things have worsened. Disposable plastic bags clog the drains and fill our water bodies with floating plastic. Many states in India have banned the use of plastic. People have started using cloth, jute or fiber bags. The problem lies with the disposal of plastic – mostly with the recycling process – which needs to be improved.

While the urban population in India is under the influence of fad diets, rural India lacks knowledge regarding nutrition and its link with health. If only the women and men understood the benefits of eating a nutritious diet filled with protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fat, fiber, minerals and vitamins, then the word “malnutrition” might be consigned to history, and many maternal and infant deaths would be prevented.

The challenges are many and there are not many solutions! In my opinion, it’s all about numbers: too many people to cater for! We, as communicators, have a hard task ahead of us: women empowerment, imparting education, supporting cheaper efficient innovations, and creating a scientific temper in the minds of people to sustain all that.

Photo: Employees at Myna Mahila Foundation make sanitary napkins at the Govandi office, Mumbai, India (Photo credit: The Quint).

5 thoughts on “Challenges involved in Communicating Health Science to rural India

  1. A very well presented account on the rural health and hygiene scenario of rural India which necessitates the urgent intervention of Science communicators in different vernaculars.
    Dr. Arvind Mishra


  2. I appreciate that you have really understood the challenge ahead for the science communicators. I think writers and communicators of science should be smart and communicate culture based and emotional messages to connect specially to a niche like “rural women in India” . My recent blog post ;( , I tried to share with some of my experiences about spreading message emotionally.


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