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Recent story told a flawed tale of India

Article by: JESSICA MACKENZIE

“The country has problems, yes, but it is not brutal and backward on the whole.”As a woman who lived in India for nearly two years, is married to an Indian physician and gave birth to my daughter there, I was shocked and disappointed by the narrow perspective of the article “A Glimpse of Health Care in India” (May 8).

The article featured Dr. Donna Block, who recently traveled to India with the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to gain insight into India’s health care system. Unfortunately, from what I read, what she left with was a jumble of misinformation and stereotypes.

Block talks about a hospital in Chennai, describing it as “one of the better clinics.” She then weaves a tale of horrors, unlike what I witnessed at top health care facilities in India. Are there clinics like the one she described? Absolutely. But they are not considered good, never mind “better.” Many hospitals in India practice evidence-based medicine and implement Western-style protocols. Her implication that Indian hospitals and doctors don’t have regulations, don’t pay attention to sterility and have no process for consent is misguided at best. While probably accurate at some government clinics and a few private hospitals, it is not an accurate generalization of Indian health care.

Block was given a strange piece of misinformation. She asked why patients couldn’t be told the gender of their unborn babies, and was told that Indian men divorce their wives if they are carrying a girl. This is patently false. Divorce is still uncommon among middle- and lower-class families in India. The truth behind the nondisclosure is that Indian law forbids notification of gender for unborn babies to deter the unfortunate practice of selective abortions.

Dr. Block then spoke of the slums she toured. I was floored by the apparent lack of understanding of poverty in India evident in her assertion that poor rural families sell their daughters into prostitution. Those young girls in the red-light district aren’t knowingly sold by their parents. I won’t say it never happens, but in general, most are victims of trafficking — stolen from Nepal and northern states near the border. Many other families are duped into letting their children work in shops in large cities, and instead the children are sold into sexual slavery. Again, a large misunderstanding that unnecessarily paints Indians as brutal and backwards.

Finally, there is Block’s assumption that all slums lack health care and immunization programs. India has the second largest public health system in the world. And while this system is admittedly rife with corruption and other problems, one thing it gets right is immunization drives. Many people living in colonies like Dharavi are immunized, not to mention educated.

There’s a mind-set of many Westerners when they travel to Third World countries that the place they are visiting somehow needs to be saved, and that only we have the answers. Many times we ride the thin line of colonialist thinking without realizing that we’re making assumptions that don’t fit the full picture. To assume we have the right to go in and fix what is not ours is dangerous to begin with, especially given the U.S. ranking for maternal mortality (31st, well behind countries like Albania and Poland). The complex social and socioeconomic strata of India make the country nearly impossible to understand in a lifetime, never mind within a few weeks.

I would never say India is without its problems. It is in dire need of an overhaul to many of its systems. And surely the marginalized people of Dharavi and other “slums” deserve a more permanent solution to their educational and health care challenges.

However, prestigious programs such as the Women’s Leadership Board should look at ways to partner with indigenous programs. In the end, this should be less of a parent-child relationship and more of a sisterhood. In this way they will gain the cultural understanding that, as this article illustrated, is so sorely needed.

Jessica MacKenzie lives in Alexandria, Va.

Source: StarTribune

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