Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Safe Motherhood and Education in the rural region of Upaipur

Joie Lemaitre Guest Blogs for Americans for UNFPA

It's Wed. afternoon and we arrived in Udaipur late yesterday afternoon. Udaipur is in the state of Rajasthan and is a high desert area, very hilly, rugged and spectacularly beautiful. We are staying in an 18th century fortress that was bought by an Indian woman in the 1980's and she renovated the palace using local workers, local materials, and Rahjastani artwork and crafts. Marble is quarried here...white, black and green. I have a green marble soaking tub in my room...totally decadent and beautiful. The beds are on platforms on the ground, the floors are marble, and I think the slippers I have been given are hemp. Talk about feeling like an Indian princess. Now I just need to put on my new Indian tunic, pants and shawl and the feeling is complete. It's called Devi Garh in Udaipur, Rajasthan, check it out if you like.

We spent the day today touring the area and visiting a regional clinic...much cleaner and nicer than the govt. run hospital in Delhi. There is progress here in the rural areas and more and more women are using the clinic to deliver their babies. A couple of women who had complications when they had their children came and spoke about how the clinic saved their lives. As other neighboring women hear that the clinic cares for the healthiest outcome, they are more willing to have their babies outside the homes. The idea is very foreign and scary for some, so the word of mouth is helpful.

The Rajasthani people are beautiful...the men wear the colorful turbans and have wise weathered faces and the women wear beautiful saris' and enormous earrings in their nose rings, I guess, but they are like chandelier earrings. The villages are quite basic...the house, barn, children and livestock all living under the same roof. I am still so struck on how so little has changed for centuries in many parts of the world...and the rest of us move at light speed, comparatively speaking. They are gentle and dignified people. Although their history is one of a warrior people, as this would be the doorway to India from the north.
We had such a fabulous time at a regional education center for women today. The married women are learning crafts to raise money for their families 'cause once they are married they can no longer go to school. There were also many school girls there who are learning about how HIV/AIDS is spread, how to be advocates for themselves. They are urged to continue in school. The girls were about 15, 16 years old and spoke of their desire to go on to college and become teachers, and doctors and engineers.

Three of our delegates were dressed in honorary sari's (including me) to the delight of the girls and women. They were all laughing and clapping as their teacher wound the Sari material around our bodies and then veiled us. The women had made the sari's to sell, so I bought the one they put on me, which is hot PINK! We felt like rock stars...everyone wanted to shake our hands and touch us, etc. They don't get many foreigners in their rural villages, so we were quite the show.
Tomorrow and Friday we have more UNFPA site visits...schools, clinics, hospitals and then back to Delhi on Saturday. Hopefully my flight will leave on time on Sunday AM, but this time of year it's very "foggy" ie. smoggy in Delhi, so often flights are delayed for several hours.

I've learned a lot, have been reinvigorated by this trip and the work that's being done to better the lives of women and children by UNFPA...the word needs to get out there. And, hopefully our next president no matter who it is will finally release the millions of dollars that have been withheld by Bush. It's interesting to note that Congress votes the funds to support the work of UNFPA every year and even increased the funding this year, it's just Bush's administration that holds it back.

signing out from a hilltop in Udaipur...the sun is beginning to set over these spectacular hills.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Improving Access, Improving Care for Women in Delhi

Joie Lemaitre Guest Blogs for Americans for UNFPA

It's early AM, we leave for Udaipur today in the state of Rajasthan. I hear it's a very colorful area, we'll see what that means exactly. I do know that Madonna has been there with her family and entourage absorbing the music and culture in that area. That story and the cricket news is big here. I'm sure you all have been following the big cricket controversy as well, :).

Yesterday we began the official part of the delegation which was eye opening and really interesting. Our day started with an overview of UNFPA's programs here in India....all programs under their auspices relate to maternal and child health, family planning education, HIV/AIDS education as well as working with the govt. of India in helping to promote laws that will better the lives of women and give them more autonomy and control over their bodies and their lives. I am again so impressed, as I was in Cambodia, with the passion and the love the staff here give to their jobs. The issues they face here are daunting, but they are realistic and know improving access, improving care all takes time....and money.

The single biggest issue right now in India as far as maternal health and family planning are concerned is the skewed male/female sex ratio...the gap between boy and girl live births has increased drastically over the last 20 years. What is counter intuitive is that the drop in female births is due not to lack of education but due primarily to a financially secure and well educated middle class. It's not the rural woman who throttles and kills her girl child that is the primary issue, though that's certainly a concern. It's the middle class couple who through modern technology decide to abort female fetus's...obviously to the detriment of the woman, her child and Indian society.

Despite education and despite financial security, if a couple now has only one or two children they make sex-selection decisions based on deep rooted cultural beliefs. The boy child is still valued for these reasons 1) passing on the family name 2) land and property rights 3) care of parents in old age, though girls do this more and more 4) they are the only ones with the ability to perform last rites.

Now, this is primarily limited to Hindus and northern Indian, but Hindus make up over 90% of the population. The one exception are the Sikhs, which are a branch of Hinduism which broke away from the main religion several hundred years ago. The did not believe in the caste system and they also believe more fully in the equal rights of the sexes and value both boy and girl children. Sikhs making up a number of immigrants to the U.S have a strong and very progressive belief system.

Anyway it is now illegal in India to use ultrasound or sonograms for the purpose of sex selection. The Govt. run hospital we visited yesterday has a huge sign making it very clear that they do not perform sex selection abortions. The hospital offers free contraceptives, surgery such as tubal ligation and vasectomy's, free delivery and maternal care and post natal care, as well as early stage abortions which are legal in India. The facility is old, unclean, and outdated in technology and equipment (unlike the private hospitals which are state of the art). However, the staff are dedicated and caring and very hard working.

In the afternoon we visited Shakti Shaleni, which is a woman's shelter. Most of the women were young, between the ages of 17 and 26. There were a couple of girls who had been rescued from the sex slave trade, but most were victims of "dowry" violence. This, too, is a big problem in India. A groom's family can demand more property or money indefinitely, even after the marriage. If a bride's parents can't pay up, the new bride is often rejected by the family and her new husband. It's too shameful for the bride's family to take her back, so she either puts up with abuse from her husband and his family or through the help of NGOs and UNFPA sponsored programs can find the help she needs to leave the situation. These young women are very courageous and their stories are so amazing. I am again in awe of the strength of people. These young women...oh they touch your heart. Our daughters are so lucky to have the opportunities they have, and they choices they have.

Last year a law was passed outlawing "dowry" law, but very few people will take these things to court, at least yet.

Gosh, that's probably way more information than you want, but it's good for me to get this down on paper. And, this just scratches the surface.

I am excited about seeing Udaipur and continue to see the programs offered by UNFPA in this region.

Extreme Poverty

Joie Lemaitre Guest Blogs for Americans for UNFPA

Just popping off another note to you all. It makes me feel connected in some way and the images here are so profound and foreign.

Someone once said to me that India will feel more foreign to you than any other place on earth, but having been to Cambodia and Turkey, I didn't put much stock in that. Well, it's not the "foreign" aspect so much, but the dehumanization that happens here.

I will never forget the young woman holding a baby tapping on our car window while we were stuck in traffic, pantomiming that she needed food (hand to mouth) and the baby mimicking the same gesture. It's impossible to react to one person because once you do you will have 10 or 20 more surround your car demanding a handout. It's truly the most dehumanizing experience. It's very difficult for me to ignore another human being, but you must.

I saw poverty, and extreme poverty in Cambodia, but there was a dignity and honor the Cambodians have that is not as visible here. In fact, outside of the newer downtown area of Delhi, all that you see in this country between Delhi and Agra is crumbling facades, piles of debris, corrugated roofed-cinder block buildings with nothing appealing about them and masses of humanity seeking out a living with little life or hope on their faces or in their eyes. And the holy cows are just as bleak and depressing. They may be free to roam, but roaming in the streets picking through garbage is not much of a life. I don't think I saw one smile on a face yesterday as we drove back from Agra (either human or bovine).

One of the more fascinating places I visited in Agra (aside from the monuments) was a crematorium. All Hindus and Buddhists are cremated, so it's a very busy place. Only male members of the departed’s circle of family and friends are allowed to view the burning. Katie (one of the delegates) and I were the only two women allowed in with our guide. It all takes place outside along the river. The bodies are placed on brick platforms and then the male family members place a pyre of branches around the body. A priest lights the pyre and the family and friends will stay for about a half hour and say prayers or chant. It takes a body 3 days to burn. At that point male family members return and take some of the ashes (the rest are dumped in the river by crematorium workers) and then will sprinkle the ashes at the holy places in the Ganges River. The holiest of these is Varanasi. Again, the women (not even the wife or mother or sisters, etc.) are allowed to participate in this ritual either.

I'd write about the daunting information we have received about the sex slave trade here in India, particularly Calcutta, but I feel like my letter is filled with such depressing information already, so I'll stop. As much as we may have our own battles to fight in the U.S. and other places in the western world, we are so damn fortunate.

I'm off....a day in Delhi as a tourist with the delegation and then site visits with UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund begin tomorrow. My friend Anika who is the president of Americans for UNFPA arrived yesterday, so we had dinner together last night and caught up on news, it was great to see her.

My love to all of you ....will hopefully be able to write some more hopeful news about progress in this country once I'm with the UN guides.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tuk Tuks, Camels, Bicycles, Water Buffalo, Pedestrians and Autos En route to the Taj Mahal

Joie Lemaitre Guest Blogs for Americans for UNFPA

It's been a long day, so this will be short, or at least that's my intent, but who knows. I have seen the Taj Mahal, but before we get these a bit about the ride from Delhi, the city of Agra and then the mausoleum which is one of the 7 wonders of the world.

There is one road to Agra and it's filled with trucks, tuk tuks, camels, bicycles, water buffalo, pedestrians, autos (which are little green and yellow cars filling the role of taxis, usually filled with a family of 7 or more hanging out the sides). There don't seem to be any rules of the road and everyone is honking their horns at how do you know if it's you they are honking at? We passed 4 count them 4 head on collisions on the way to Agra and huge numbers of people gather around each accident all looking confused and scratching their heads...not a policeman or ambulance in sight. I have never seen such confusion in my life. I am so glad that I am not even remotely thinking of driving and I thank god, krishna, buddha, allah that our guide is a very good driver and seems to know how to maneuver as best as he is able through the throngs.

Agra is a poor city and very dirty with little to endear anyone to it except for the fact that when the Mughals invaded India in the 15th-16th centuries and brought their exceptional ruling abilities and love of building great structures to the area that the amazing Agra Fort, Akbar tomb and Taj Mahal were built, hence my reason for being here.

And, they are truly breathtaking....and truly crowded....over 7,000 people a DAY come to visit the Taj Mahal according to our guide. It was built for the 3rd wife of Shah Jahan, his favorite and beloved wife after her death at the age of 39 and after bearing him 14 children. She died while giving birth to the 14th. If anyone deserves a monument to her glory, I guess it's her.

I have to end as I have only a few minutes left (on the computer), but I’ll fill you in some more about the Taj and the area tomorrow if I have time. We are seeing the Agra Fort tomorrow and some other palace complex, but I can' remember the name.

Warmly Greeted with a Marigold Necklace

Joie Lemaitre Guest Blogs for Americans for UNFPA

I am a woman and a mother of two daughters, grateful for the control we have over our lives, our choices, and our health. We raised 2 daughters here in Concord, MA, and they are now launched and on their own, working and living in NYC.

I am a former teacher, a career volunteer, and an artist. My areas of interest and expertise have always been with children and families, as well as the arts. I spent 5 years working for an organization called M.O.M.S. which was affiliated with our local hospital. The organization matched an experienced mother with a new mother as a mentor and support system. In a world where many new mothers lack a family support system close by, this was a valuable resource for the community.

I am now a practicing artist and career volunteer. I was fortunate enough to join Americans for UNFPA in January 07 as a delegate to Cambodia and in January 08 as a delegate in India. This blog relfects my in the moment reactions and insights to what I saw in India.

I have arrived safe and sound in Delhi. It was a 24 hour trip with a stopover in London for a few hours, but I am here and my internal clock tells me I missed a day somewhere over Europe.

The flight was fine... no individual TV sets even in business class and old reruns of The Tim Allen show on the one TV and very "B" Bollywood movies. But, it was one of the smoothest flights I've ever had.

I arrived in Delhi about 11 PM on Jan. 1st to a sea of faces waiting for loved ones as I came through customs. There is always that moment of slight panic that no one will be there to greet you in a strange country, and I still had no currency for India, as apparently Rupees can not be had until you get to India....considered an illegal currency elsewhere, fascinating.

After a few moments I spotted Rajen my contact here in India. He greeted me with a marigold necklace and a hand embroidered shawl and a big smile. I felt like visiting royalty. And, then his driver whisked me off to the Imperial Hotel in Delhi. The traffic is busy even at midnight and horns are constantly beeping. In fact, most trucks have signs on the back that say Please Honk. The roads are good around Delhi, a city of 15 million people. As it was dark and a bit foggy I coudn't see much, but as we entered the grounds of the Imperial Hotel I knew I was in an oasis of calm. It's a grand British colonial hotel...the entrance is lined with Royal palm trees and lots of twinkling bright lights. It was built in 1936 about 11 years before the end of British Colonial rule, and has all the fixings of that era...marble floors, Victorian chandeliers, teak woods, palms in pots, very elegant and genteel. They still serve high tea in the atrium in the late afternoon.

I collapsed into bed around 1 AM Delhi time on January 2nd. I believe I am 10 and a half hours ahead of the east coast when we switched to daylight savings time. In the summer it's 9 and a half hours.

I have not yet met up with any other members of the delegation, but I understand there are about 6 of us here, including two women who were on the Cambodia trip with me. I have the day to myself so may explore the area around the hotel. I am advised that I should not walk too far alone, but the area around here is certainly safe.

Tomorrow a small group of us leave for Agra which is about a 4 hour drive from Delhi to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. We'll spend a couple of days there and then return to Delhi for the official beginning of the UNFPA delegation on January 5th.

Happy New Year to all.