On Tuesday 13th June, the weekly meeting began with more excitement than usual. As a group of unassuming, young girls approached the familiar stage, the audience wondered what kind of business these youngsters – who must have been at least a third of their own age – had at one of the most esteemed meetings in the city.
When it was announced that the group was a collection of students who had spent the last few months studying hard and learning at the RCB’s Vocational Training Centres, the audience eagerly awaited to see the fruits of their donations bloom before their eyes. A comical yet touching skit followed, with a theme that seemed fitting with the upcoming speaker’s topic of choice: women empowerment. As an issue that our Rotarians care deeply about, it was fascinating to observe what was only once known as a distant fact, finally come to life through performance.
After the well-received skit, Dr. Asavari Herwadkar graced the podium. A director at the Ojus Medical Institute by profession, she took to Mumbai’s slums to improve maternal health and medical awareness through a foundation called ‘Damini,’ for which she was presented the prestigious Anita Parekh Award for Women Empowerment. Once she thanked the Rotarians and dignitaries present, she began with a few fundamental truths, most strikingly that “no woman should die without getting a single opportunity in her life; no woman should be deprived of the empowerment that she deserves.”
Then, she highlighted the alarming challenges that faced, slum-dwelling women, and more importantly, first-time mothers in these poverty-stricken areas. “Since the proceedings of this event, five women have died in our country, due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth… That means 45,000 dead mothers everyday,” she stated.
She continued with a few more statistics that drastically grew in seriousness. The audience, stunned when confronted with the gravity of the situation, sat shocked. One could assume that their thoughts in the moment would have been unanimous, echoing in unison: how do we solve this grave problem plaguing our societies?
“These figures are huge aren’t they?” She questioned, “Something difficult to comprehend by human terms.” As she once again highlighted the concerns that run rampant right in front of our doorsteps, such as anaemia, malnourishment, female feoticide, and asymmetrical access to medical information, a common underlying cause quickly became clear – “Discrimination; The women and children in our slum areas face neglect and bigotry.”
“Such attitudes tolerate the inadequacies in overall female healthcare,” she explained. “India,” she said, “is currently 131st, out of a total 180 countries when comparing standards of gender equality. Therefore, it is not just the government, but we too have to put in an effort to add it in the top fifteen,” she claimed.
Finally paralleling the audience’s concerns, she asked, “What can we do to reach there?”
Many Rotarians may have had their own answers, but Dr. Herwadkar noted “a simple point is knowledge. If one can access knowledge, they will not be far from empowerment.”
For example, though the Indian government has put in an “equitable effort” to plan schemes for the benefit of women, such as twenty six weeks of maternity leave and a six thousand rupee pay-out for maternal healthcare, it is often difficult for women, and mothers in specific, to access this data. “It is this lack of information and awareness that is not lifting them from the baggage of poverty,” she stated.
She then narrated the story of Sindhu, a slum-dweller turned community health-worker, who was trained by Damini in basic maternal healthcare. Once a shy and reserved individual, she is now a “bold and confident” woman, who helps her peers achieve the same attitude towards life through door-to-door information provision. Sindhu has helped hundreds of mothers birth children across her community, and continues to be the “eyes, ears, and voice” of government-provided health services.
“By providing skills training along with formal education, and utilising the opportunities around them,” Dr. Herwadkar has been able to change the lives of numerous women around the city.
But she claims that once needs-based skills training sessions have been completed, digitisation should be the next step forward. “More than 65% of people in slums have smartphones,” she noted. “If only we could educate communities, and teach how to use technology, they could then pass on the information to their native peers.”
As plans for a Damini app move ahead in the pipeline, she called for everyone to help break the “desperate poverty cycle” that continues to be perpetuated today. “By just simply giving them information to access healthcare,” we can terminate the cycle – instead of pregnancies.
Ending her speech, Dr. Herwadkar called for everyone to “make our world a better place for our women, for everyone.” She stated, “Empowerment is to increase the level of autonomy and self-determination, so let’s all move forward towards empowerment, and take everyone along with us.”