On Friday, I learned a bit about the first project I’ll be working on. It’s not maternal health, my initial scope, but rather reproductive health: the project is called SAKSHAM (Strengthening Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills for HIV/AIDS Management) and it’s a community-lead program targeting female sex workers in Andrha Pradesh (a state in the southeast part of India). The goal of this particular program is to educate, support, and empower female sex workers to be able to negotiate safer sex and attempt to mitigate the risk of HIV/AIDS, and deal with the health aspects of infection. It’s an interesting program because of the community-based part: the programming and leadership comes from within the sex worker community rather than CARE or other NGOs imposing interventions; rather, they seem to provide the resources and the framework and then let it happen with support but not imposition. This strength though means that the knowledge base stays within the community, and we want to better capture it so it can be more widely used in scale-up ventures – and I believe that’s what I’m going to attempt to do as this project enters Phase II. I have a lot to learn about knowledge management and tools and such (and I’m mostly going to have to teach myself) but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’m also going to try to develop a scheme for model programs so that we can get past the “we’ll know success when we see it” stage and then be better able to design successful community-based programs. This organization is, as they say themselves, not that great at the knowledge creation and application levels, so we want to strengthen that side and get the stories told in a way that promotes and reinforces success. Risk management and harm reduction are critical concepts in high-risk populations and activities and on a more selfishly personal level, relevant for my Epidemiology work too! There are good examples of this back at home – think of InSite in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, sex ed vs. abstinence only education in schools, and crack pipe and needle exchange programs. There’s still quite a bit of controversy and politics surrounding these issues and harm reduction models in general, but it’s certainly a discussion we need to be having considering the serious and life-threatening consequences these high-risk behaviours can have.
I also just want to say something about a word I’m going to be writing a lot: empowerment. I think in our Western culture, this word has the perception of sounding sort of vague and New Age-y, like a woman reaches a certain age and feels empowered to dye her hair a different colour. For this organization working with girls and women who have essentially no say in their lives, the idea of power is very elusive. We take for granted that we can make decisions regarding pretty much all aspects of our lives, and this is not true of women in many parts of India and the rest of the developing world. When we say we want to “empower” women, what we’re really saying is that we want to make women aware that they are capable of making decisions, that their ideas count, and that as women they do have worth. Just think, if you’d never been asked for an opinion on anything, never consulted, never been allowed to make a decision, how would you go about claiming your rights to an education, or to the right to live apart from violence, or to even just to ask a guy to put on a condom? This is what CARE means by empowerment: the idea that women can take control of their own lives, and that self-determination is something of which they are fully capable.
And now onto the mundane aspects of daily living…
On Friday, we went to the one restaurant near the office and ordered way too much food but it was good – we got the Northern Indian mixed plate and the Southern Indian one. Both regions operate on the same principle of Starchy Things You Dip In Other Things. The Southern food includes dosa, which is kind of like a crepe, idli (doughy balls of fermented lentil and rice), and vada (donut-fritter kind of thing). The things you dip in are sort of watery chutneys and raita. It’s good but greasy. The northern food is more naan, roti (another flatbread), pappadums and is dipped in thicker things like dal and paneer. I’m not sure that I should be forming opinions on the food here when the only Indian food I’ve had is coming from one fast food restaurant, but I’d say I like the Northern food better so far.
Yesterday I ventured across the footbridge into Greater Kailash I! Figuring out how to get myself around here makes me feel a bit more at home. I met up with a girl from the office (Phaedra from Australia) for coffee and mani/pedis. I’m not really into stuff like that, but your feet do take a beating here in sandals walking through the dirt and dust all the time, so she recommended it – plus she just got back from trekking in Nepal. I didn’t really care for the experience, the guy (yes, it’s men who are the practitioners) was kinda rough and I really don’t see the point of this when I can take care of myself without the pain or tickles. I investigated another grocery shop at M Block and got chana (chickpeas), pappadums, mango chutney, “mixed pickle” (they pickle everything here, apparently), dosa mix (the Aunt Jemima of South Asian crepes – I’m not ready to start grinding and fermenting my own lentil and rice flour just yet) and kurcha (flatbread) so I can start cooking a little more indigenously. Then Phaedra took me to a different market in Kailash Colony (took a cycle rickshaw this time!) where they have good produce. The mangos aren’t quite in season yet but they’re still good. The maid came over and took my laundry and cleaned (yes, the maid – my landlady owns this place and the one I’m moving into so she sent her over since laundry was supposed to be included). Her name is Asha, she doesn’t speak English but she’s very nice. I just did grant application homework while she did her thing… it feels different, having someone clean up after you, but basically she sweeps and washes the floors and dusts, and I’m told because of the amount of dirt and grit that’s here, it’s necessary. Obviously my cleaning standards aren’t the same as everyone else’s – I come home with filthy feet, rinse them off in the shower and consider myself good to go.
In the evening, JC, the Pfizer colleague from Miami who’s working on Project HOPE, phoned me and suggested dinner. So he met me at my gate and we took an autorickshaw to GKII market (I’ve only seen the KC and GK I markets). He’s been here around 3 weeks now, and has been suffering from the infamous Delhi Belly. I’ve been lucky so far, I guess. He’s also developed asthma from the air quality so he has to wear a surgical mask on the roads now. Whatever works, I guess. We went to an Asian (not Indian) restaurant and I had lemon coriander soup, which was really good, and Thai papaya salad (I was still stuffed from shwarma at my late lunch). Oh! At the café where we had lunch, they had POUTINE on the menu! I’ve been warned though that if something sounds “ironic” on the menu, avoid, avoid, avoid.
Thus concludes Week 1. I’ll start taking some pictures of life here so you can see what I’m seeing, but I’m not a great photographer, so don’t get your hopes too high!