In December 2014, I left the comforts of San Francisco to take part in the Public Health & Community Medicine in India program through Child Family Health International (CFHI). During my 4 weeks in northern India, I had the opportunity to engage with and learn from various non-governmental organizations that are tackling public health challenges like injection drug use, sanitation, and prostitution. For the first week, we worked with a WHO-recognized organization in Chandigardh that focuses on women and children’s health care. One of my fondest memories from this experience was being able to interact with the female sex workers that this NGO helps. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Aditi*, who told me how her hardships from back home forced her to become a sex worker in order to keep her children in school. Listening to Aditi’s story really put my life into perspective. Aditi, who is a mom, sister, wife, and daughter, was literally sacrificing her own body for the sake of her children, something only a strong individual would be able to do. I couldn’t help or stop Aditi from being a sex worker, however what I could do was be someone she could talk to, someone who would listen to her, even if only for a short amount of time. It was an exchange of hellos, an exchange of respect, and an exchange of appreciation that I could give Aditi, and ironically, in the end, what she gave me. This experience taught me that it is impossible to understand a public health issue like prostitution without understanding the human beings whom it affects.
When I embarked on this experience, it had been 6 years since my last visit to India. The transformation I saw in the country was phenomenal. I noticed improvements in infrastructure and cultural changes. Years ago, the topics of HIV/AIDS or sex workers were very taboo. No one liked to acknowledge any health risks and the government wasn’t doing much to spread awareness of such issues. Visiting the country now and witnessing the many programs the government has implemented within each state was inspirational. Programs such as NACO have made such a difference in the lives of countless people across northern India by providing necessary services and supplies to lead a healthier and safer lifestyle. Apart from HIV/AIDS, I also witnessed changes in the caste system in India. In this system, “untouchables” are deemed to be the lowest caste because of their occupation of being scavengers (individuals who clean up human waste from homes due to lack of toilets). This program gave us the opportunity to work with a UN-recognized social service organization based in Delhi that is committed to getting rid of the untouchables caste by creating a toilet complex system to implement in villages across the country.
Being an Indian-American, I was able to appreciate India in a manner I never had before. I had always heard about various problems in India, whether it was about the spread of HIV/AIDS or the controversial caste system, but I always felt helpless living more than 8,000 miles away. Through CFHI, I was lucky enough to meet people like Aditi, and listen to their stories to understand what really is going on in the world outside of our own bubble in America. Often times, I have heard my very own friends and family who are Indian-American comment on how “backwards” India is in terms of development and simple progressive ideology about issues pertaining to HIV/AIDS. By experiencing India first hand, I now have the knowledge and experience to educate my friends and family and help them be more aware of important public health issues. Reading and hearing the news about India is one thing, but actually being within India’s space and engaging with the people of that country helps put these issues in perspective.
As a senior graduating college soon, I am at the crossroads where I have to choose what I want to pursue for the rest of my life. After my 4 weeks in India, I realized that this trip wasn’t coming to an end for me, it was just the beginning. CFHI not only gave me clarity, but also a sense of direction. The CFHI program solidified my decision to pursue a career in the field of public health. Prior to the program, I knew that I wanted to obtain my MPH, however I wasn’t clear on what specialty to emphasize in. This trip exposed me to the world of global health and made me realize that it would be the perfect field within public health for me. CFHI not only helped me fall in Iove with India again, but it also helped give me a sense of purpose that I perhaps would not have found without this trip.
*Name has been changed to respect privacy.
Special thanks to our guest blogger, CFHI alumna Deepa Mistry, for authoring this post.