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‘60,000 women die during pregnancy in India’

This activist has been working with leaders and local partners to empower women in all spheres — from equal rights to health and education

education Updated: Aug 01, 2012 16:04 IST
Aamit Khanna

We are what our families let us be. I am the fifth child, born to Malina and Rupeswar Gogoi, after four sons. Girls in our country face enormous discrimination. Every day, we read about female foeticide, infanticide, girls being trafficked, newly-married girls murdered for dowry - but where I was growing up, I never felt that girls were not wanted in this country and I never faced any discrimination. In my family, I was never treated any different from my brothers, in fact, there might have been some positive discrimination — being the only girl, I got a lot of affection, attention.

As a very young child, “what do I want to be when I grow up” changed very often for me. I was a vociferous reader of fiction, my imagination would take wings each time I finished reading a book. After reading Sphinx by Robin Cook, I wanted to become an Egyptologist, I wanted to study ancient history, wear sola hats and baggy brown pants, and excavate ruins. After reading a Hindi film industry gossip column in a women’s magazine, I would want to be a glamourous film journalist!

Though I was not sure of what I wanted to do, I knew very well what I did not want to do! I was a good student, but I had no interest in pursuing science. Given those days when “good students” took up science and “average students” would opt for humanities, my decision to join the arts stream met with a lot of resistance from my teachers. I was made to attend Class 11 science the first day of school, of course, I ran off to the arts class the next day! I did not want to walk the beaten path and wanted to do something which I liked and which I would be happy doing.

My Class 12 results were good, and I went off to the Lady Keane’s College in Shillong for my graduation. I graduated with honours in history and moved to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi for my masters in international studies. I completed my PhD in international studies from JNU. Along the way, I also did a postgraduation course in journalism.

My PhD in international politics gave me grounding in social, political, and economic systems and how policies are made. My journalism course and work in filmmaking taught me how to package and present my messages.

About decision to work on women’s health and rights
I started working in 1994, and the first six years, I worked for an NGO called Development Alternatives. I worked around creation of sustainable livelihoods. My work took me to different corners of north India which gave me the opportunity to see first-hand how women are treated — I was appalled. I saw the discrimination and deprivation women had to deal with — be it education, nutrition or decision making about their own life. That’s when I decided to look for opportunities to work in organisations that work on women’s empowerment. In 2000, I joined CEDPA (The Centre for Development and Population Activities), an NGO that works to improve the lives of girls and women. Currently, I am the executive director of CEDPA India. We work hand-in-hand with women leaders, local partners and other organisations to give women the tools they need to improve their lives, their family conditions and communities. This work provides me the opportunity to work with myriad groups — women, communities, civil society organisations, government.

About work and challenges
Most of us in India will be shocked to learn that we lose about 60,000 women in our country every year to pregnancy related causes. More than 80% of maternal deaths in India, as elsewhere in the world, are due to six causes: haemorrhage, eclampsia, obstructed labour, sepsis, complications arising due to unsafe abortion and pre-existing conditions such as anaemia and malaria. None of these should really be life threatening — all are treatable — and most of these can be treated in a hospital that has emergency facilities and skilled personnel for obstetric care. Besides these, the underlying causes for maternal mortality include low quality of health systems, socio-economic causes that obstruct and underplay the importance of healthcare for women. To prevent these maternal deaths, we need skilled health workers, we need functioning health systems, and we need families to seek skilled care.

Most of the women who die due to pregnancy-related causes in India are poor women, who have little political power and are usually illiterate. Their voices are not really heard and therefore it is so very important for people like us to add our voices, speak with and speak for these women, so that girls and women no more remain invisible when they are alive and uncounted when they die.

It’s very tough sometimes to come to terms with the fact that 90% of the country’s population doesn’t care about the issues that I feel so strongly about. If you talk to the family or husband of a recently deceased woman, they give excuses, like ‘it was God’s will’. Reconciling my convictions to this apathy, this reality, is the toughest part.

On being an inspiration...
For me, it is difficult to treat my work as just a job, because I am doing what I believe in doing, which is working to improve the status of women’s health and rights. I am compelled to prove to myself every day that I am true to my work.

If people think that your work is worth a mention, it inspires you to work harder. It does feel good when your work is appreciated, but honestly, I find the awards and mentions a bit embarrassing.

On a typical day at work
Every morning, I gear up to deal with a range of issues that confront us in our work, our programmes — from prevention of maternal deaths to providing young people with life skills so that they make better choices in life.

Work-life balance
You have to be brave enough to make your choices and stand by them. If you are at work, you should give 100% to your work, and once you are home and with your family, you should be there 100%.

Success mantra
For every problem, there is a solution. What we need to do is to find that solution and work towards it.

If people think that your work is worth a mention, it inspires you to work harder. It does feel good when your work is appreciated, but honestly, I find the awards and mentions a bit embarrassing — Dr Aparajita Gogoi, executive director, Centre for Development and Population Activities, India