Dr Aparajita Gogoi, Executive Director, C3 and National Coordinator, WRAI, is an advocate for health and rights working with a single mission to make the lives of girls and women in India better. She is the Executive Director of Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3), an Indian NGO which works to enable women and girls to be fully empowered, equipped to realize their rights, access opportunities and achieve gender equality.
She has almost three decades of extensive experience in defining approaches and strategies, and building campaigns on community mobilization and amplification of women’s voices. She holds a PhD (International Politics) from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been accorded recognition for her work in various forums - on 8th March 2011, Guardian, UK, marked International Women’s Day by selecting 100 of world’s most inspiring women, and Dr Gogoi was named as one of these 100 women.
Dr Gogoi speaks to team Women Entrepreneur about her work with C3 and WRAI.
What is your take on the current condition of women and their place in the Indian society? Which are some key areas where India is still lacking in terms of empowering its women?
Women in India have come a long way, and a lot of progress has been made. We see increasing rates of young girls enrolling in school and finishing their education, we see more women becoming entrepreneurs, taking charge of their own agency. We are also seeing women break barriers and entering conventionally male-dominated fields. We see an iincrease in the percentage of women in the age group of 15-49 years having a savings account that they use themselves. Similarly there is an increase in number of women owning a house and/or land - alone or jointly. More good news around health-fertility rate or the number of children each woman has is dropping, there is a decline in maternal deaths, and we also see a decline in child marriages.
To keep up the momentum of these positive changes, we need to continue investing in issues that impact women and girls, for example, we have to improve girls education-data consistently demonstrate a strong and positive relationship between increased formal educational attainment among girls and delayed marriage, healthier sexual and reproductive behaviors. If we ensure that most of our girls finish at least secondary education of girls, even by a meagre 1%, evidence tells us it will result in annual income increase of 0.3% per capita for any nation. Global evidence shows that for every 7 years of girls’ education, marriage is delayed by 4 years, children are fewer by 2.2, and her income rises by 20%.
To impact women’s health indicators, education can play a game changing role- educated women are more likely to use contraception to delay their first pregnancy. Women with primary education have 1.4 higher odds of using contraception, with greater odds at higher levels of education – 1.9 for secondary education and 5.7 for higher education (Pandey and Singh 2015).
Alongside education, we need to invest in strategies to improve our female labour force participation rates, (currently standing at 19% as of 2021, according to The World Bank), Besides this, we also need to end patriarchal norms that continue to hinder women from taking independent decisions, accessing information and services around their wellbeing, and exercising their rights.
Hence, we’re at a point of time where there’s an equilibrium – there have been important gains, yet we have to do more to ensure that the status quo changes, that women’s needs are truly addressed.
Women’s access to healthcare has remained a major concern for India since several years. As someone with extensive experience of having worked in the sector, what are some of your key observations regarding women and their healthcare needs in India?
Patriarchal norms often lead women to internalize the notion that their own health isn’t a priority that taking care of their family members’ health and meeting their needs comes first. As a result, women hesitate to seek out care unless their health issue is truly severe, which leads to delayed diagnoses (or even the lack of a diagnosis), exacerbating their poor health.
These same patriarchal structures lead women to often depend on external factors or systems to be able to seek out care. Many women might not have the freedom of mobility to travel to see a doctor, and need their husbands’ assistance and permission to do so. Many women also may not have the financial independence to sponsor their own healthcare, and again have to rely on male family members. This further complicates the process of seeking out care, and further adds to the hesitation women have in accessing healthcare.
From our work in rural communities and after conducting multiple quantitative and qualitative studies, we have also seen how there is a lack of awareness around healthcare among women. Due to stigmas around women’s health, a lack of literacy, poverty, and various other factors, many women from these communities often do not know what services they are entitled to avail from public health institutions. And even when they are aware, their understanding of what constitutes ‘quality care’ remains narrow, and they often are denied respectful care.
Give us a glimpse of the work that you have done in terms of community mobilization and amplifying women’s voices.
C3’s work has always been community-driven, focusing on how issues around gender equity can be addressed at the grassroots level and impact every woman, everywhere, even in the remotest regions of India.
Taking off from the earlier conversation on quality of care, one of our most significant initiatives to mobilize women’s voices was in the form of a campaign called ‘What Women Want’, where we asked women from across the country to articulate their demands from the healthcare system. Lakhs of women shared their demands, and initially, many of those demands tended to focus on improvements to infrastructure – like the need for more doctors, the need for hygienic wards, and so on. But through deeper probing, they could articulate that what they also wanted was for this very same healthcare infrastructure to treat them with dignity and respect, to uphold their privacy and confidentiality, and to give them autonomy over their own medical choices.
The campaign was a massive success, and it was scaled up to be a global campaign of the same name. Through the demands articulated by the participants of the campaign, we developed a Respectful Maternity Care (RMC) Charter, to be leveraged by policy-makers, healthcare providers, and more, to meet these demands and make quality care a reality. The charter raised awareness on the 12 rights a childbearing woman should have, which included, among others, the right to freedom from harm and ill-treatment, the right to informed consent, the right to equitable care, the right to privacy and confidentiality, and the right to have a birth companion.
C 3 is also working with women representatives of Panchayats in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to not just take up issues around women’s health in their communities, but also to mobilize their fellow community members to raise awareness on the evils of child marriage, on the need for family planning and maternal health, and on domestic violence. Through facilitating their leadership during events like the POSHAN Maah, Annaprashan Diwas, God Bharai Diwas, Village Health and Sanitation Days, we have helped them bring together women and adolescents from various backgrounds and engage them in important conversations around nutrition and wellbeing.
Tell us about the ambit of your work in your current organization, C3 and WRAI. How are you working towards improving the lives of Indian women and girls?
C3’s mission has always been to equip, mobilize, educate, and empower girls and women to achieve gender equality. We work towards a future in India where girls and women are fully empowered and enabled to realize their rights and opportunities, to claim spaces, and attain complete agency.
To do this, we intervene in every crucial stage of their life cycle where they are the most vulnerable.
Regrettably, many girls born in India finds herself at the centre of gender inequality. They are often at the risk of dropping out of school due to poverty, patriarchy, or early marriage – and to avert this, we implement projects aimed at providing key life skills through school systems and within communities. As a result, girls grow up with crucial life skills such as negotiation, decision-making, goal-setting, confidence and the agency to stay in school. And boys grow up sensitized as upholders of gender equity. To avoid early marriage, we design programs for young girls, parents, community members, and other influencers who play a role in the lives of young girls, so they are sensitized on the need to delay marriage and to build a conducive ecosystem that supports every young girl to reach her full potential.
Early marriage often leads to early pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and a lack of awareness and choice in decision making. To avert this, we work to increase awareness around the reproductive health, contraception and family planning of girls and women, while helping them access services and monitor the quality of these services. When women embark on motherhood, it is an equally vulnerable period of their lives, where, without an awareness of one’s maternal and reproductive health and rights, women are at-risk of unsafe pregnancy and childbirth. To counter this, we engage with women, health officials and service providers, health facilities, government leaders and institutes, to promote respectful maternal and newborn care in India.
At the same time, we work with grassroot elected women representatives, community officials, self-help groups and women leaders, to strengthen both women’s grassroots leadership and systems of governance as a whole. This also equips women to assert their voices and agency more effectively to counter gender based violence and bring about gender-transformative change at the community level. We also equip women and girls with livelihood skills and digital skills so they can access employment opportunities that helps them gain financial independence and the capacity to choose her own path.
Can you narrate an incident/anecdote about success stories that you have facilitated while working with Indian women?
The way we ensure the longevity of our impact is by equipping communities to carry on their engagement with these causes even after C3 concludes its projects. Hence, a lot of our focus is on sustained capacity-building – equipping adolescent peer educators, local women leaders, community health workers and other community stakeholders. When we travel to the field, we see evidence of changing mindsets in our project areas.
Young girls from rural areas of Bihar and Jharkhand speak about how, after being part of our groups, they have challenged menstruation myths (like not being allowed to touch pickles) in their families. . Other young girls talk about standing firm against child marriage, and even convince their peers and community members to not give in to child marriage. Through our digital literacy trainings, many young girls from marginalized, tribal backgrounds are securing fruitful employment, are entering the mainstream. Young girls are also building entrepreneurship skills by starting ‘Sanitary Pad Banks’ to make sanitary napkins accessible to their communities. At the same time, the EWRs that C3 works with have gone on to revolutionize health infrastructure in their communities – often operationalizing defunct community-based clinics, and going against all odds to make sure women in their communities can access healthcare services. Especially during COVID-19, they went above and beyond to tackle quarantining of returning migrants, to spread awareness around vaccination and get more and more people vaccinated.
It is the girls and women from these communities who are the real change-makers, who inspire their fellow peers to reject patriarchal norms and pursue their independent paths. C3 works as the catalyzer which provides that little nudge to women and girls.
Tell us about some of the major challenges you have had to face while working in the development sector?
A challenge we often face is that just one organization alone cannot bring about real change. Progress can only happen if the entire ecosystem works together – when stakeholders, civil society organizations, government bodies collaborate to address the issue at hand. Achieving that isn’t easy, and hence, reaching the outcomes we set out to reach often comes with its barriers.
C3 works on issues that are deeply rooted in social norms. Changing norms takes time, and we often deal with donors and supporters who want quick changes, while seeing impact on the ground needs long term engagement and investment.
How do you foresee Indian women’s situation evolving and improving in the days to come?
As I mentioned before, the situation for women in India is changing for the better. There are definitely things we have achieved today that were unthinkable even a decade ago. But more still needs to be achieved.
Especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, there needs to be collaborative efforts to invest in girls education, skilling of women in 21st century skills, improve female labour force participation, and attention paid to ensure quality, equity, and dignity in healthcare, ensuring that every woman’s wellbeing needs are being met. Addressing gender-based violence, f stalking, harassment that women face is also crucial. But perhaps what is the most important is to create an environment where young girls are raised with not just access to opportunities, but belief that they can chart their own destiny. That they can grow up to be leaders and entrepreneurs and disruptors, that they have safe spaces to voice their opinions, and that they can make independent choices without any fear.