A Crusader for Women’s Health

Ashoka Fellow Indu Capoor is Founder-Director of Centre for Health, Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA), based in Ahmedabad, India, an organization she started when she was just 23 years old. This was in the early 1980s when the young nutritionist had a vision of an India where the health and nutrition of marginalised women and children mattered. So when she was asked by a multilateral funding agency to write a proposal, she wrote a note going well beyond a project. She proposed an institution that would work as a bridge between policy and practice. And CHETNA, or Centre for Health, Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness, was born. Chetna means awareness in Hindi.

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Indu is an old friend and a senior colleague. Yesterday, I met up with her for an hour and we chatted about many things, including the subject closest to her heart—woman and child health. Here is the interview.

Me: Indu, you have been in this field for over 3 decades. What still remains the major challenge to women and child health.

Indu: Women’s self-esteem, self-confidence and agency. Somehow you can link everything back to these. Poverty is of course a major issue, but social practices and beliefs are as significant.

For instance, take anaemia. About 50% women in India are anaemic and this is the major cause of underweight children being born, and other childhood problems. There is a lot of focus on child health, but I think we have to focus on the root cause—the health of the mother. If we fix that effectively, the problem is solved. But it is still true that women do not get enough food, or enough nutrition. Their food is not a priority. A young girl, at her in-laws place, has no say on what she eats. During pregnancy, it is important that a woman eats to her liking. But is that really possible? And the women themselves believe that they are the last priority.

I can never get over the fact that at my wedding, one of the vows I was supposed to take was that I would first ensure that my husband, children and guests were fed before I ate! I obviously refused to take the vow. But this is how deeply it is ingrained. We have to socialize boys and girls to understand that nutrition of young girls is extremely important.

Me: Have you seen any positive changes?

Indu: Yes, I do see changes in women’s confidence, mobility, decision making space etc. in urban areas, and the borderline poor. But not in the really poor.

In fact, ‘livelihood development’ and outside work sometimes adversely affect these women because their work burden increases hugely. No one else in the house shares domestic work, and in addition, she has to go out and work. This has implications for her health and well-being.

Me: This is worrying. Any other such concern areas?

Indu: Yes. Spiralling food prices, pollution, market forces, cost of medicines, loss of food diversity, all of these have huge implications for nutrition in general and women’s nutrition and health in particular.

Me: What is one critical action which can help in this situation?

Indu: I think we must consider each and every policy from a gender angle. We must ask: ‘how will this affect the health and well-being of women, especially marginalized and poor women’? And only then can we finalize the policy.

–Meena

For more: Read ‘A Shared Destiny: My Journey with CHETNA’ published by Academic Foundation is about Indu’s journey in of 3+ decades in the field of woman and child health.

Keeping Tradition Alive

July is here. And along with it, the festival season. Pujas—a time for festivities, fun, enjoyment with the family. A time to get back in touch with our traditions. A time of solemnity and also gaiety.

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But also today, a time for stress! Who knows what the auspicious grass for Ganesh Chaturthi is? Or the prasadam to be made for Thiruvadarai? What is the rangoli to make for Rathasapthami?

And how to answer questions from the kids? Why is Naga Panchami celebrated? Who is Ekadashi? Why do we make sundal for Navaratri?

“Follow the Hindu Moon: A Guide to the Festivals of South India’, by Soumya Aravind Sitaraman, will answer all these questions and more. Brought out by Random House about 10 years ago, this magnum opus is in two volumes, totaling to over 800 pages. But don’t be put off by the weight and the bulk. The publication is erudite and comprehensive, but extremely easy to read and refer to. The text presentation is clearly organized and simple.

What really brings the book to life are the more than 400 colour plates. Beautiful, un-posed, real—they bring alive the beauty of our traditions. Whether it is the decoration of Varalakshmi or the photographs of the delicacies made for different pujas, you wish you could be there in the photo, living that moment. The photographer is Usha Kris, Soumya’s mother!

Volume 1 is called  ‘Celebrate’. It covers: “Puja Basics’—everything from aartis to vastram; ‘Embracing the Almighty’—a guide to pujas;   ‘ Getting organized’—pooja checklists to annual festival planner; and ‘Celebrate’—detailed walkthroughs for every festival of South India, including procedures, observances, rituals, sankalpams, stories, etc.

Volume 2 called ‘Understand’ has sections on everything from ‘Reading the Panchanga’ to shlokams, to naivedya recipes, and festival-specific rangoli designs.

The books work at several levels: as a ‘Do-it-yourself’ guide for novices; as a reference book on details for experienced mamis; and as a fascinating browse for anyone.

At first look, Rs. 3500 seems a bit of an investment. But this book is bringing to you almost those many years of tradition!

So whether you are an experienced puja veteran, or a student in the US who wants to celebrate festivals the traditional way, or an ‘armchair cook’ like me, you are going to enjoy this book. So buy it for yourself. Or share the joy of a festival and gift it to a loved one!

–Meena

Matchmaker, Matchmaker….

Shared memories are probably what define a community or nation or any grouping.

And one indelible memory shared by millions of Indians is seeing miles and miles of walls painted with:

‘Rishtey hi rishtey

Prof. Arora

Mil to lein’.

Prof. Arora rocked social media before social media was invented!

But this piece is not so much about the ‘world-famous in India’ professor, as about how matches were and are made.

Detail from ‘Matchmaker’: A painting by Nilofer Suleman

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When we were young (and for centuries before that, I would imagine), it was about

Pushy pishis

Mission-mode mamas

Chatty chachis

Anxious ammammas

Each activating their network of relatives, friends, acquaintances; chatting up people chance-met at weddings or house warmings or whatever; reaching out to guests of their neighbours, sisters in law of their cousins, whoever. But the fundamental strategy was ‘pass the word, pass the word’.

And boy, did it work! Everyone (except the resolutely resistant), did end up getting married.

‘Matchmaker’: Nilofer Suleman

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And then came a generation where it was considered OK to put up a matrimonial ad in TOI or Hindu or whatever the local dominant newspaper was. This seemed to work fairly OK too.

Today, with so-called efficient networks and all manner of specialized networking sites, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. I meet so many 30+ people who are not married. It could be that they don’t want to get married. But I know at least half of them do want to. But they never seem to find the right person. The trick seems to be to find a soulmate in school or college. It seems to get increasingly difficult afterwards.

Then parents come into the picture. And they are pretty clueless!

Which makes me think that we have to find some other means to fix matches. Have no idea what, but maybe go back to real-live human beings as intermediaries, rather than just bits and bytes of information floating in the ether?

—Meena

Supermom

It is building up to Mother’s Day again! As we are reminded by all the mushy gushy ads—a day to thank dear mummy with gifts galore! There is even on offer, an online course that will teach mothers “how to re-connect back to you, let go of mummy guilt, practice self care, gratitude and how to turn mundane tasks into magical mindful meditations. Learn how to feel connected, content and calm on your motherhood journey!”

This made me smile! If only mothers had the time and energy to take such a course! “Hey Presto! Look kids, Mummy is Connected!!”

Being a mother seems to get harder every day—you have tiger moms, helicopter moms, soccer moms, and more. I am reminded of the early phase of my own motherhood journey. We did not bear such titles, nor wear such mantles. We were simply hassled mothers!

I think back to the many years when, waking at dawn, I used to pack bags of clothes, boxes of food, and paraphernalia for the day, for two infants, and take ourselves off (the whole caboodle being dropped by husband, on a trusty scooter) to my office by 9.15 every morning. I was indeed blessed to have a crèche on the premises, but that did not excuse me from taking back, at the end of a long demanding working day, piles of soiled diapers (yes, dear ‘Pamper’ed mommies, it was before the days of disposables!)… all to be washed and dried and repacked the next morning. Coming home tired and cranky, while the children were fresh and raring to go, one barely made it through the evening of domestic chores (packing into a couple of hours an entire day’s agenda), till one collapsed with exhaustion, only to rise and shine again the following day.

Somewhere along that journey I wrote a little poem.

Superwoman

A song of those in mid-career,

who start a family.

Coping with home and job and kids,

with never a moment free.

No breathing time from dawn till night,

nor energy to take stock of life.

Burdened with the nagging guilt,

of being an inadequate housewife.

Juggling all the fronts at once,

trying to keep the balls aloft.

A precarious state it is indeed,

never sure if the battle’s won or lost.

Few realise the task it is

unless they really wear the shoes.

“Where am I going, and where is arriving?”

These are the superwoman’s true blues!

Dedicated to all those who are today, where I was yesterday! This too shall pass!

–Mamata

 

Happily Ever After?

I must confess, I am a regular ad observer! I believe that ads improve my GK as it were! They give me a sneak peek into “what’s hot”, “what’s cool” and where its “raining discounts!” Ads add to my vocabulary, introducing words like Swag (!), and now KDM. Ads paint me a world where the swag and gloss of the PYTs is never to be touched by the seven signs of aging; the housing schemes that promise “paradise on earth”; and dhamaka deals that will make it feel like Diwali every day! The world is your oyster–Just choose, click and add to cart!

Pardon me if I sound like I don’t relate! In fact I don’t want to, in this make-believe air-brushed world, while the mad, bad rest of the world continues to grapple with the daily business of survival–water shortages, spiralling prices, blatant corruption and abuse of power, and the horrors of every kind of atrocity that humankind can unleash.

But I digress. Coming back to the ad ad ad world. A long-time item of my ‘ad education’ is a scan of the Sunday paper’s matrimonial pages (another confession!). This is in some ways a tiny window into what society considers “a suitable match”, and how things are changing (or not). Some years ago girls were ‘wheatish’ complexioned and ‘homely’ (wonderfully Indian use of the word which in British English means cosy and comfortable and in American English means unattractive!) Of course we use it to mean home-loving and, perhaps, skilled in domestic duties! The other attribute highlighted was the “cultured” family background.

A quick look-over of last week’s page revealed that ‘Beautiful, slim, fair’ were the main adjectives used in almost 80 per cent of the ads. Somewhere in the fine print is revealed that the girl is also well-qualified professionally. Another interesting, though curious, point was the highlight on the “successful business family” angle. A case of lucre over culture? On the same page are also some Elite ads in which everyone, without exception, is ‘looking for a like-minded and well-educated/well-read match.’ I would love to know how these very noble-sounding words are interpreted!

On the very same page was the proud announcement by the newspaper that it has started a BooksOverBeauty initiative through which the intention is to change the format of matrimonial ads so as to put education over looks. The paper promises to highlight every ad that puts education first. I am flummoxed—are looks and books so irreconcilable? Does it always have to be one or the other? Are we continuing to reinforce the comic-book stereotype of the frothy beauty vs the geek? I thought we had moved beyond that?

It would be interesting to see how that initiative unfolds. At a time when our society seems to be at the lowest ebb of basic human values and respect for dignity and life, are we merely paying lip service to the notion of respect for women? Or are we merely playing with words? Will the mere order of words change the way we see women, we treat women, and perhaps even how women see themselves?

–Mamata