Tazeen Quereshy Feb 28, 2022 Kendujhar, Odisha

In a unique approach, healthcare workers in rural Odisha engaged traditional healers – who once branded newborn babies with a hot iron to try and cure illnesses – to curb this harmful practice.

Children and women attending an awareness meeting on hot iron branding

Awareness campaigns run by rural healthcare workers are resulting in the reduction of hot iron branding practice (Photo by Tazeen Qureshy)

Plush greenery, thatched houses and rugged roads. Kundei looks like a typical Odisha village. But despite being in the mineral-rich Kendujhar district, this lush village lags in development.

Kundei has over 1,000 people, including members of the Juang indigenous community. Like many communities in Odisha and elsewhere, the people of Kundei were unaware of good health practices, like babies being delivered in medical institutions and exclusive breastfeeding.

Limited access to healthcare facilities only aggravated this, forcing villagers already riddled with superstitious beliefs, to depend on traditional healers.

One such superstitious belief is the branding of newborn babies with a hot iron to ward off the ‘evil spirit.’

Hot iron branding to ward off evils and illnesses

The practice, called chenka in local parlance, is usually done from 7 to 21 days after a child is born. Sometimes, the parents wait till they spot the blue vein on the child’s stomach, which they believe is the root cause of a stomach ache called pilhi locally.

“When a child falls sick or the blue vein appears, the community believes the child’s possessed by some spirit,” Sourav Bhattacharjee, nutrition expert with UNICEF told Village Square. “They believe branding the baby’s stomach with hot iron will expel the spirit and protect the child from evil eyes.”

No history, no statistics

There are no records to show exactly when and how the age-old tradition came into practice.

The cases are more rampant during winter, especially during the harvest festival of Makar Sankranti.

Villages like Kundhei lacking access to hospitals led to increase in hot iron branding
The lack of healthcare facilities near remote villages, like Kundhei, resulted age-old superstitions proliferating (Photo by Tazeen Qureshy)

Since the practice takes place mostly in remote areas, the cases often elude government officials, making documentation difficult. Incidents usually only come to the fore when a branded child develops a sepsis and is brought to a hospital.

Though the practice is largely limited to infants, there has been hot iron branding among women and men too.

In 2018 over 50 women and children took part in a mass hot iron branding event in the  Dhenkanal district. In July last year a 34-year old man died after being branded multiple times for tuberculosis.

The practice is deep-rooted in the indigenous communities’ faith and beliefs, making it difficult for the state to intervene.

Reverse tactic to tackle the issue

But in 2019 Odisha launched the Jiban Sampark  project in partnership with UNICEF to empower Particularly Tribal Vulnerable Groups (PTVG). Working with local NGOs, the project set out to halt hot iron branding.

The project used the reverse approach method to stop the tradition. Instead of directly creating awareness among the community, the team approached traditional healers – locally known as bisharis.

“It is a well-known fact that the whole community listens to the bisharis. When we told the bisharis that they were committing a punishable crime, there was a lot of resistance since it was their only source of livelihood,” said Sanjit Patnaik of South Orissa Voluntary Action, an NGO working for the marginalised and tribal communities.

However, the team told them not to give up their pooja or religious rituals.

“We just told them to send the children to the hospital when the parents brought them in. So, the bisharis’ livelihood was saved and the child also got timely medical attention,” said Patnaik.

The AAA approach

The other way of reversing the cases was done through working with the triple As – accredited social health activist (ASHA), anganwadi (childcare centre) workers and auxiliary nursing midwives (ANMs). AAA forms the basis of the healthcare system in rural areas. Since surveilling the branding was a challenge, these workers served as a bridge between the communities and the state.

Health workers conducting health check up in Kundhei village
Frontline workers, who act as bridges between villagers and the administration, conduct regular health check-ups in villages (Photo by Tazeen Qureshy)

UNICEF trained local ASHA, Ketaki Mahanta, and other stakeholders about health misconceptions and how to tackle the cases of hot iron branding. After nearly a decade, Mahanta has been able to convince the people to stop the practice.

But she admitted that it was not easy to break people’s superstitious beliefs.

“They refused to listen. Sometimes I threatened that I’d take away their ration cards that provided them subsidised food,” Mahanta told Village Square.

At times Mahanta even threatened to brand the mothers with a hot iron if they let it happen to their child. She did so in hopes that such an extreme threat would make the mothers realise how violent the practice was.

“Once I prevented the practice, I told them about the medical implications of chenka,” she said.

Decline in hot iron branding

Though there is no data, experts believe these interventions have reduced the practice of hot iron branding in Odisha. They see the growing confidence in institutional healthcare as an indicator.

For instance, according to the National Health Survey report-5, the institutional delivery rate in Odisha increased from 85.3% in 2015-16 to 92.2% in 2019-21.

“The rise in the number of institutional deliveries can be an indicator of the declining cases. It reflects a growing confidence among people on the healthcare facilities, which is a positive sign,” said Bhattacharjee.

On the ground too, the change is visible.

Twenty-four-year-old Basant Juang, a member of the indigenous Juang tribe from the Kundhei village who was branded when he was 21 days old, has vowed not to allow anyone else in the village continue the tradition.

“After attending meetings and seeing awareness videos about the ill-effects of hot iron branding there’s a change in belief now,” he said. 

Basant Juang helps spread the word too, creating awareness in his village and nearby areas. He is optimistic that progress is on the way.

“Hopefully, this unhealthy practice will end soon,” he said.

Tazeen Qureshy is a freelance journalist based at Bhubaneswar.