Secretary Hillary Clinton and her entourage have come and gone from India, where they discussed many important and pressing issues. However, women’s issues were not among them. Of course you can’t cover everything in a short visit, yet I am a little surprised that it didn’t even make the agenda, given Clinton’s strong support of these issues at the State Department (creating an Office of Global Women’s Issues). Clinton has put a lot of her force behind women rights, saying “The United States must be an unequivocal and unwavering voice in support of women’s rights in every country on every continent.”
Women in India are impacted by a host of problems, from poverty to HIV/AIDS to ingrained preference for sons. The maternal mortality rate in India is shockingly high, at 254 per 100,000 live births, though there has been some improvement in the last few years. I wish Clinton would have focused attention on maternal health; according to UNICEF, worldwide over 500,000 women die of pregnancy related causes every year. It is unconscionable that this many women are dying in childbirth. A little attention and investment in healthcare and women’s rights would make a world of difference.
When I was in India in 2009, I met with women and men working to improve the maternal health of Indian women and increase awareness of family planning. Education and access to health centers, be it public or private, are key. A high percentage of rural women do not have close or easy access to clinics and healthcare providers, nor do they receive adequate pre (and post) natal care. Furthermore, they don’t receive much education on sexual and reproductive health, especially available contraceptive options for themselves and their families. It is crucial that both partners be educated and involved in making decisions and understand the risks and benefits.
Population Services International is one of many groups doing excellent work on women’s health. One tactic they use in educating people is street theater, where actors talk about the effects of having a large family vs. small and act out as couples having a discussion of family planning. The play I saw was on IUDs – what it is, why couples might want to use it. During and after the street theater, outreach workers hand out pamphlets with information. It also doesn’t hurt to have international celebrities on your side — to encourage condom usage PSI has Justin Timberlake marketing one of their Masti condom brand.
I know, we can barely get our Congress to do the right thing on energy efficient light bulbs, so why would they even care about the health of women in India. That’s someone else’s problem if women in India are dying in childbirth. This is an obvious statement, but it is about doing what is morally just. Women should not be dying in childbirth anywhere in the world in the 21st century if it is at all preventable.
Hopefully Secretary Clinton’s next trip to India will make this and other issues directly affecting women a priority.