Aparajita Gogoi - Crusader of maternal health!
The Executive Director, CEDPA India and National Coordinator of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, India, Aparajita Gogoi is a woman of substance who believes in safe motherhood, and had thus started her quest to know more about maternal health. Let's hear from her, about her mission and vision.
1.Tell us something about the "woman", Aparajita Gogoi.
I was born in Assam in a family of four sons and as the only daughter in the home I was treated somewhat like a special child. When I was growing up in north east India, I never came across discrimination against the girl child or women. If I ever was discriminated-it was positive discrimination. And it was this that laid the foundation of my life, about how I perceive myself, a person who enjoys her rights, takes her own decisions, and makes her own choices. A person with a supportive spouse and family. But I was not insulated to the injustices that women face in India, and I wanted to work in the social sector, to try and contribute my bit in making India a better place for girls and women. And that’s what I try and do.
2.What led to the conception of CEDPA India and White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood?
India is a country where many girls are killed before they are born. In the last 3 decades, 12 million girls have been killed in our country before they were born. In many parts of the country, sex ratio has dropped to fewer than 850 females per 1000 males. India has sent a space craft to Mars, we are a nuclear power, but these developments have NOT really made much of a difference in the lives of girls and women in our country. We can be called a nation of child brides-with almost half of our girls are married before the age of 18. 1 in every 4 women faces violence and a rape takes place every 22 minutes. India contributes to 19% of global maternal deaths-we lose a woman every 10 minutes to a pregnancy related cause.
These are the realities which drove me to dedicate my life to making our country a better place for girls and women. And that’s the reason why I work for the NGO, CEDPA India, an organization dedicated to empowering girls and women in India.
3.What do you feel about the condition of maternal health in India? How can it be improved?
In India, about 56,000 women each year are lost in child birth, that’s one every 10 minutes. This accounts for 19 percent of maternal deaths around the world. 70 percent of these deaths can be prevented, and that’s what the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood (WRAI) works for-prevention of these deaths. WRAI is an alliance of maternal health advocates. 1800 organizations are members and many hundreds are individuals. I volunteer as the coordinator of the alliance. WRAI has been trying to raise the volume of discourse, working with government to make things better for women, working with media and committed individuals.
Let’s look at why are women still dying? Well, we have the medical causes: Haemorrhage, anaemia, obstructed labour, hypertensive disorders, unsafe abortions, sepsis etc and we have factors like lack of skilled attendance or lack of emergency obstetric services, family planning services, etc. However, drivers of poor maternal health include lack of value given to women’s health in many settings, women’s lack of confidence and power to assert their needs, economic inequalities, and poor healthcare provider commitment to women’s well-being. Social determinants such as early age of marriage, early and repeated childbearing, are also contributing factors. Early marriage has serious repercussions -half of the women who die in childbirth are young women. 36 percent of Indian women are malnourished and about 55 percent are anaemic.
Challenges remain – vast country, diversity, problems of supplies (drugs, medicines), malfunctioning of equipment, inadequate human resources, inaccessible terrain, religious and socio-cultural factors. But what we need to do right away is invest in improving people’s capacity to assert their entitlements and voice their grievances, we need to create awareness, build capacity to demand and build agency and create opportunities for women to publicly confront people in power. Women need to become more aware of their rights and available services. There is a need to focus more on issues such as girls’ education, violence against women, family planning, nutrition, and sensitizing men-- which all impact maternal health.
4.What has been some of the most satisfying milestones of your organization?
It’s very difficult to highlight specific milestone. Every day that we spend in the field, every project that is reaching young girls and boys, every woman who we meet, each of these moments have a bearing on how we work, how we think, and thus, turn into milestones.
5.Where do you see your NGO ten years down the line? Any particular vision that motivates you?
Our vision is an India where women and girls are fully empowered and able to realize their rights, opportunities and achieve gender equality. CEDPA equips and mobilizes women and girls to achieve gender equality. Their equality is essential to building stronger families, communities, and societies. We envision a world in which women and girls are able to fulfill their dreams free from the constraints of poverty and inequality and in which their full worth is realized and valued. CEDPA India’s Youth programs equip boys and girls with practical life skills, improved confidence in personal decision making and increased self-esteem. Our programs for young girls and boys have reached out to almost a million girls and boys in India. CEDPA India is committed to women’s equal participation in governance and leadership roles as a step towards building a stronger nation. We are slowly moving towards the fulfillment of our vision in our own small little way--reflecting local values and needs, we partner with communities to raise women’s' voices, mobilize advocates for better public policies and programs and increase women’s' political participation.
6.During this journey, is there any particular experience which moved you?
There are so many experiences that inspire me to continue with my work, but there is one experience that I will never forget-the experience that led me to begin working around women’s health and rights. In the mid-nineties, I was working with an organization whose mission was to create sustainable livelihood, and through economic empowerment of women. A TV crew was tracing the life of a woman in Bundelkhand who had started working in a re-cycle paper factory. We met her when she got trained for the job, and we went back with the crew to interview her a year later to ask her if her life had changed after she started bringing money home…and she said it did. A few months later, we went to this woman’s house to speak to her again---she was literally the “poster girl” of the project, and we were told that she had died in childbirth-that she was anemic and hemorrhaged and died a short while after giving birth at home….for a young women like me, it was very difficult to understand why this was allowed to happen- a completely preventable death. Thus started my quest to know more and work for women’s rights and health in India.
7.Academically, you hold a PhD in International Politics from JNU and a post-graduate diploma in Journalism. Has your education aided your passion for social activism in any way?
My school life was full and busy-I was the kind of a person who wanted to do everything, from sports to dramas, to debates, to dances. My schooling took pace in Arunachal Pradesh and I graduated with History Honours from the Lady Keane’s College in Shillong. Then I 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 post graduation 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 film-making taught me how to package and present my messages.
8.Any word of advice that you would like to share with our readers?
For every problem, there is a solution. So, instead of dwelling on the problem, find that solution and work towards it.
9.What does woman empowerment mean to you?
“Empowerment “is a BIG word and often misused. I am very amused when people say that we are doing x or y to “empower” girls or women. Empowerment can rarely happen from outside. It has to come from within. Empowerment will happen when women in our country are taking their own decisions, when a girl in our country survives and thrives like her brother, when a girl in our country is not forcibly married off in her adolescence, when girls and women are safe, and when women are not dying of preventable causes like pregnancy related deaths. Women’s true empowerment will be here when women have political power, are literate, and have equal status in their societies, when their voices are really heard...
10.Are you glad to be a woman? Why?
I am very glad to be a woman, because I live life on my own terms….