Women from villages in south Kashmir's Pulwama district register for a church-run program that aims to make them aware of nutrition needs for pregnant women and children. (Photo by Umar Manzoor Shah/ucanews.com)
One year after her marriage, Rubeena Bano gave birth to a baby boy in 2015 at a government-run hospital in south Kashmir in India.
However, her happiness was short-lived as last year he was attacked by an abrupt fever. Routine paracetamol helped contain his fever but the boy soon developed epilepsy, a disorder that causes seizures because of disturbed nerve cell activity.
Medical examinations proved the problem started in the child's prenatal days because his mother had not taken adequate nutrients and proteins during her pregnancy, hindering the development of his central nervous system.
"It is still considered a taboo in our village to visit a doctor during pregnancy. We are told to work and eat a normal diet even when pregnancy is detected. This is how it has been going on here for years," said Bano, 33, of Pulwama district.
Close to 25 percent of women like Bano, who live in village areas of this Muslim-dominated region, believe that supplements like folic acid, iron and calcium tablets are unnecessary during pregnancy, a study found last year.
The study by the Food Science Research Journal found village women did not have adequate awareness of the benefits of dietary supplements.
In a bid to ease such problems in the conflict-ridden region, the social service wing of the Jammu-Srinagar Diocese has come up with a program called Mother and Child Health.
The agency launched the program this year in Pulwama district to advise pregnant women about the importance of routine health check-ups and a proper diet.
According to Jammu and Kashmir state's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, more women are suffering malnutrition-related diseases compared to men and children.
Altaf Lone, coordinator of the church-run program, told ucanews.com that awareness camps are conducted every month in villages aiming to make both men and women aware of the dos and don'ts during pregnancy.
"We have found out that a major chunk of the people living in the far-flung areas of the state lack awareness about women's health and take pregnancy very lightly," Lone said.
Such an approach is giving rise to miscarriages, complicated pregnancies and abnormal births in the region.
Yasir Mir, a research scholar at Kashmir University, told ucanews.com that a lack of awareness is directly affecting the health of women and children in the state.
Of the state's 301,640 children under the age of 18, some 184,000 are physically challenged, according to the 2001 government census. "The figures could increase if the lack of awareness among women continues," Mir said.
Mir said 16.6 percent of children in Kashmir under the age of 5 are underweight, while only 23.5 percent aged 6-23 months receive an adequate diet.
Jammu and Kashmir is the battleground for Muslim militants fighting government forces to free the region from Indian rule and make it an independent state or part of the neighboring Muslim nation of Pakistan.
"The violence has already been taking a toll, impacting people's mental health in general. Women have been the worst victims of the conflict and therefore need special attention," Lone told ucanews.com.
Shazia Dost, a member of the program, said local health experts also attend the program's awareness camps.
"We also facilitate routine check-ups and make women aware that they can get medicines during pregnancy from government-run health centers," she said.
Dost said the program had received an encouraging response from villagers.