Us and Them

Over the last week, newspapers and TV channels across India have widely reported the case of a 21-year-old student who has moved the Bombay High Court seeking permission to undergo a sex-change operation.

Bidhan Barua was to be operated on this month at a prominent Mumbai hospital.  After threats from his family, the hospital refused until they got a legal go-ahead. Bidhan wants to get operated as soon as possible because he wants to be with his partner. His father however believes the decision is “not just a personal one”, and insists Bidhan gets the permission of his grandparents and uncles. One newspaper quotes him as saying, ‘I gave birth to a son, not a eunuch’.

Bidhan’s decision is an intensely personal one, and I am full of admiration for this young man who has found the courage to come out into the open. Not easy in a society which is so quick to dismiss People-Not-Like-Us. And God help you if there is some sexual aspect to it.  My heart goes out to his family in Guwahati which no doubt is coping with awkward, even cruel, questions from neighbors and friends.

What I find appalling however are the comments I hear around me, some from fellow journalists. – ‘Now, how should we title the studio discussion? Daddy let me be a girl. No. I gave birth to a boy, not a eunuch!’’

Another comment,  “Where will he go for breasts? He is flat!”  Upon pointing out the sheer bigotry, I am told ,’Oh come on, how would YOU feel if your child wanted to do THAT?.

I am the first to admit that I will be less than enthusiastic. However it is finally an individual’s choice and a watershed moment for that one family. What gives any one of us  the right to pass judgment? Or comment on their lives?

Watch those ads!

‘Son, what will you study in high school,” goes this honeyed voice over the car radio.

“Science and math, Mama’, answers a well-behaved sounding voice.

The conversation goes on.

“And later in college?”. ‘Mechanical engineering with a focus on mechatronics,’

 ‘Well then you must have XXX Fruits,” says Mama in her brightest voice, going on about how it helps children top the classroom.

Now I know it’s a bit daft to believe that ads tell the whole truth but there is a strong case to be made to monitor the claims they make. Particularly those for children’s food products because many people actually buy into them. Take the ads for Complan health drinks which many of us have grown up watching. For decades they have promised to add an extra 3-4 inches to a child’s height.

‘Mothers tell me things like my child is short so I give him Complan. They forget the child was small at birth, that the parents are small and some kids suffer critical illnesses post birth,’ says well-known pediatrician Dr R.K Anand, advisor and resource person for child care programs of international organizations like UNICEF. Dr Anand is a member of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics which has challenged Heinz, the maker of Complan, in court. “Would Heinz dare to advertise these claims as aggressively in the U.S, Canada or Europe?’ he asks. Heinz India says these claims are based on an internal study. But the point to note is that the study has not been registered under the Infant Milk Food Act as per law.

 Not just Complan, the IAP is now closely monitoring all advertisements promoting children’s products. “The commonest problem with children’s health in our country is malnutrition,’ says Dr Arun Bal, member of the Association for Consumer Action on Safety and Health. “The solutions are quite easy and cost-effective but when the products are advertised in an attractive format it makes parents more anxious”

“Poor families spend their hard-earned money on these products at the cost of their normal diet like pulses, dal and chapatis which is far more nutritious,’ adds Dr Anand.

World over, health claims made in advertisements for children’s food products are closely watched. In the U.S Nestle had to drop its claim that one of its products improved immunity after pressure from health authorities. In India too, the Advertising Standards Council has specific guidelines for such ads. About time they implemented them. ‘

Empowering Women, Saving Lives

Elizabeth’s five children are waiting for lunch. All she has is a handful of rice,  some watery dal and vegetables – clearly not enough. She despairs.Enter Neelam, a social worker. She sympathizes but points out that Elizabeth should have spaced her babies and practiced birth control.

 Watching them intently are 50-odd women, tightly packed together inside a tiny shanty in a colony in Dharavi, in Mumbai, Asia’s largest slum.  Elizabeth’s story is a familiar one.  And the community play gives them an entry point into issues they would otherwise never talk about openly.

The performances are basic, the actors untrained, but the message is a powerful one – Women can and should plan their babies. It’s a message that decades of government campaigns have failed to deliver effectively, because they have focused on permanent methods like sterilization. This leaves out women who want to delay babies.

A lack that  the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action is trying to address in a first-of-its-kind, joint initiative with the Family Planning Association of India and the Mumbai municipality. ‘We are looking at reducing unplanned pregnancies. Our objective is to get to young women, introduce correct information, remove misconceptions, tell them about temporary spacing methods and give them autonomy over their fertility,’ says Garima Deveshwar Bahl, Program Director, SNEHA.

And it is showing results here at Rajiv Gandhi Nagar colony, home to first generation migrants from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar. A community of 3500 households, with poor access to basic amenities like water, sanitation, and health services. Most families here have 3 to 5 children.Women want to space their children or limit family size but don’t know how to.

“When we started out here use of family planning methods was just 12% and in a short period of one year with very low-cost solutions, it has gone up to 30%. Of this 13% are just new users’, says Bahl.

Peer educators like Neelam and Elizabeth who are from the community visit homes and inform women about the range of methods available, the so-called “cafeteria approach.”  ‘In the beginning it was very difficult to reach out’, says Neelam. ‘We started by telling them about rising expenses and how it helps to space out children. Gradually they started thinking about it.’

“Mostly we pass on knowledge about condoms because it is easier for the men to use it,’ adds Elizabeth. ’We also tell women about pills and Copper-T so they know they can make a decision too. Use of injectable contraceptives has grown over the last few months.”

As Neelam and Elizabeth wrap up their play, out pour a flood of questions from the audience. “I agree with you but how do I convince my husband and mother-in-law?” asks a mother of two. Her query is an indicator of what remains a vital, but unaddressed part of the puzzle.  Given the low decision-making powers these women have at home, it’s essential to make men part of this program.  Something SNEHA says it plans to work on.

Every year, in India, over 100,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth, a fallout of frequent and unplanned pregnancies. This low-cost community initiative is helping to change that dismal picture.

Never too young to learn

 Family Planning matters because

*Each dollar spent on preventing unintended pregnancies will save governments $31 in healthcare,water, housing and waste disposal – UNFPA2011

*It increase chances of child survival

*It reduces maternal deaths due to frequent and unplanned pregnancies

Interview with Garima Deveshwar Bahl, Program Director, SNEHA –

Those lazy hazy crazy days of summer

Three weeks to go before my children start their summer holidays and I am trying to think up of ways to keep them usefully occupied. Come summer, we usually head to Bangalore (or Bengaluru to be politically correct) where my parents live. It’s a blissful fortnight of siestas, long walks and far too much coffee as I mull over the years gone by with my oldest friend.

This year those plans have come undone for various reasons so I have five whole weeks in Mumbai with two, very restless kids. Let me clarify – I am not one of those moms who believe my children have to be kept busy through the day. I am all for doing nothing. In fact come to think of it ‘nothing’ pretty much characterized all my summer holidays growing up. I don’t recall my parents spending a single minute thinking about what to do with me. Even though I was among those single kids who we are now told is lonely.

I would spend long hours in the garden, collecting stones, plucking mangoes and berries, playing raja rani, etc. etc. Don’t ask me what raja rani involved. Essentially we would take turns to order the others to sing a song or dance as punishment for some imaginary offences.  Thanks to my father’s brief stints in remote Air Force stations we had plenty of open sky and huge grounds to flop about in. Our parents would barely see us through the day. Only at meal times.

I vividly remember one hot summer afternoon in Wadsar, Gujarat. We were out playing as usual when a group of villagers came by selling several litres of milk. Now you have to understand that Wadsar in those days was the absolute boondocks, a no-man’s land. For every little thing we would have to drive several kilometres into Ahmedabad on some lousy roads. Vegetables, milk, fruits, everything was carefully rationed. To have fresh milk at your doorstep was a dream come true. We woke up our slumbering mothers and whipped up such excitement that everyone bought the milk without a second thought. Much later did we discover it was camel’s milk. No one wanted to risk drinking it so I am afraid it probably went down the drain.

But those days and those open spaces have disappeared. All my daughters’ friends are attending summer camps.  So here I am trawling through brochures that promise everything from better EQ to improved math skills.  Which one should I pick… Buzzing Bees or City Sprouts..hmmm

In the last week..

March 29 – In Andhra Pradesh, a pregnant is woman beaten by her husband and in-laws for carrying a girl child.

 April 2 – 3-year-old Anita, severely malnourished is admitted to a hospital in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Within hours, her parents disappear.

April 3 – 8-day-old baby girl lies unwanted in Jodhpur, Rajasthan as two families, one of them her own, battle over a newborn boy.

April 5 – 3-day-old girl abandoned at a bus stop in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

While we pat ourselves on the back for our women politicians and corporate leaders, consider this.

India is regarded as the most dangerous place in the world for the girl child.

An Indian girl between 1-5 years is 75% more likely to die than an Indian boy in the same age bracket.