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May. 3 2010 — 8:54 am | 325 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

3 Wives, 10 Kids Is Enough

Photo by Hanna Ingber Win

TENGATOLI, India — The air crackles as a team of medical staff and crew walk across a peanut field, lugging a big generator from their boat into a village of 850 people. Near a collection of thatchroof homes, the crew sets up a projector on the dirt floor of a small bamboo structure that also serves as the community’s schoolhouse. Well, it occasionally serves as a schoolhouse. The teacher lives on the mainland, a three to four-hour boat ride away, and only makes the journey along the Brahmaputra River to Tengatoli village in lower Assam to teach once a month. Sometimes once every two months.

Barefoot children and mothers holding infants trickle into the school-turned-cinema hall. The boat staff, part of a boat clinic run by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research with funding from the Indian government and UNICEF (see previous blog on C-NES and the boat clinics), show a video on maternal and child health, including the importance of family planning.

Some of the video clips are in Assamese, and even though many in the crowd only speak Bengali, the language barrier does not seem to dissuade them from watching. Many who live on this island without electricity or televisions have never before seen a video.

One of the women watching is Anuwara Begum. Dressed in a vibrant yellow, orange and red sari, she wears her head covered, an assortment of bangles and a nose ring. Begum, who does not know her age but thinks she is about 30, grew up in a village on the mainland. Like many of the girls in her community, she got married at 12 or 13. She left her family and friends and moved to her husband’s village on the island. Begum had her first child at around age 15, she says as she slowly rocks her fourth and youngest in her arms. This baby will be her last, she says through a translator.

She also says her husband agrees, which is crucial in a world where the wife – or, in this case, one of the wives – makes few decisions on her own.

“I belong to a poor family so we don’t want more children,” Begum says while sitting in a neighbor’s home. Kids from the village gather outside the door, peering into the home of bamboo walls and a tin roof. Begum says three sons and a daughter are enough to help around the home and in the fields. Her husband does relatively well as a farmer, earning around 8,000 – 9,000 rupees a month ($174 – $196), depending on the harvest, but that income must cover him and Begum plus his other two wives and all 10 of his children.

“If there is another child, there’s a problem of food, buying clothes and then educating him,” Begum says.

Begum says she was a little jealous when her husband married his second wife, but she understood the need for her. She says that early in their marriage she fell sick and was not able to fulfill her responsibilities as a wife.

“My husband is a rich man; he has a lot of agricultural land. But I was sick so I couldn’t do the household work,” she says. “If I had been well, he wouldn’t have had to marry again.”

She says she now gets along well with the second wife, who has always shown her respect and has become like a sister to her. The third wife, who is about 16 or 17, lives in Guwahati on the mainland, where her husband has other business. Begum says that while her father had only one wife, most of the husbands in this island village have two. Asked if she wants a second husband, Begum turns her head to the side and laughs.

“No need for two husbands,” she says.

The family’s decision to have fewer children marks a dramatic change from previous generations of communities in lower Assam like Begum’s. She comes from a family of eight children, and her husband is one of 10.

Less than a quarter of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 living in rural Assam use a modern form of contraception, according to government’s 2005-2006 National Family Health Survey. Factors such as early marriage correlate with higher rates of fertility.

While a change in family planning practices is coming slowly and is far from universal, public health experts in Assam say they are seeing an increase in the use of contraceptives in villages like Tengatoli.

Once Begum’s menstruation cycle restarts after the birth of her latest child, she says as a chick walks over a sack of produce next to her, she will begin taking an oral contraceptive provided to her from the boat clinic. She tried using it in the past, but she forgot to take the pills regularly and eventually stopped. This time, she says, she is committed to it.

Family planning is considered an important aspect of maternal health and would help reduce Assam’s maternal mortality rate, which at 480 deaths per 100,000 live births is the highest in India.

Fewer births means fewer maternal deaths. Furthermore, giving adequate spacing between the births of children enables a mother’s body to fully recover after a pregnancy. Having fewer children also increases the chance each individual child will receive enough nutrition and medical care and have an opportunity for an education.

After the interview, Begum takes us on a walk down a dirt path running through the village, past clucking hens and a man chopping bamboo, to see her one-room home. We meet her 10-year-old daughter who has long brown hair, a sweet smile and a flower-shaped nose ring that matches her mother’s. But not everything matches.

Begum says she and her husband will send their daughter to high school on the mainland. She wants her daughter to wait to get married until she is 18 and then have only two to three children. She agrees that it would be a big difference from the life she has known.

“I expect my daughter’s life,” she says, “to be better than my own.”

This reporting was sponsored by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Learn more about this reporting project.

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India

Apr. 26 2010 — 2:02 pm | 152 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

India: On Remote Island Village, Health Worker Challenges Tradition

AZIMOR, India — After a couple hours of cruising down the Brahmaputra River, the boat clinic arrives at a desolate mud bank. A fisherman nearby dips his pole into the water and pulls up a large net. Two community workers emerge from the boat and set off with a box of medical supplies towards the thatch-roof homes in the distance.

The doctors, nurses and I follow behind, zigzagging through the rain-soaked grass. We take off our shoes to wade through the flooded areas. The air feels fresh and crisp. With no roads or vehicles on the island, the only sounds we hear are roosters, cows and our feet sloshing through the water.

About 1,200 Bengali-speaking Muslims live in Azimor village. They have no electricity, toilets or clean drinking water. There is a primary school, which consists of a one-room structure made out of bamboo walls and a tin roof. The week before our arrival a storm had picked up the school and dropped it off in another part of the village.

When the children pass grade four at about nine or 10 years of age, they must go to secondary school on another island about four kilometers away. For most, the long and relatively expensive journey by foot and boat prohibits them from continuing school.

We reach the village, and the pharmacist from the boat sets up a table of medications as barefoot children gather around. Women in colorful saris and headscarves clutch their babies as they line up for immunizations from the boat nurses.

Ten boat clinics, run by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research and supported by the Indian government and UNICEF, bring basic health care to isolated island villages like this one. About 3 million people live on the Brahmaputra River, and the clinics have served about 300,000 of them in the past five years. For many, the boats provide their first experience with a medical professional. Read more about C-NES and listen to an interview with managing trustee Sanjoy Hazarika at my previous posting.

It begins to pour, and the mothers huddle under an open-air structure with a tin – leaking – roof. “This is the main problem,” says Ashok Rao of C-NES, as he takes shelter from the rain. The storms and human activity cause the islands to erode, and the families must move over and over. On some islands, families have been displaced six or seven times, Rao says. With each move, they must build new makeshift homes and start anew.

The displacement also affects their healthcare. The doctors return to an island to give children their next immunization dosage or perform antenatal checkups for pregnant women, but when they get there, they learn the family has been forced to move.

“The water makes them so vulnerable,” says C-NES doctor Ruhul Amin, 27. “They can’t stay in the same place.”

The boat clinics work with community health workers, called Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs. Part of the Indian government’s National Rural Health Mission, ASHA workers serve as a liaison between the village members and health professionals. The ASHA workers receive compensation for bringing a woman to a health facility to give birth and for getting children immunized. India has trained and began working with 250,000 ASHA workers in 10 states across the country, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Ful Mala Begum, 30, is one such worker. She takes responsibility for ensuring that the pregnant women in the village get their antenatal checkups when the boat clinic arrives, and she gives them counseling on how to eat well.

Asked what she tells them to eat, she says through a translator: “We are poor people; we don’t have good things to eat. We must use whatever is available, mostly fruits and vegetables.”

One of Begum’s biggest tasks has been to convince the women to give birth at a primary health center about one and a half kilometers away rather than have the delivery at home like their families have done for generations. In the beginning, she says, the women were reluctant to go to a doctor at all because they did not want to reveal their bodies to a male physician.

“Previously, due to lack of awareness and their religious beliefs, they did not feel like going to a doctor and showing themselves,” she says while sitting in the makeshift school. As she talks, the doctor from the boat tends to patients a few feet away.

Begum says she would return to the women’s homes again and again, telling them they needed to give birth at the health center in case of a medical complication. She would also tell the women about the government’s recent policy to give 1,400 rupees ($30) to every mother who gives birth in a medical facility.

Eventually, Begum’s message began to sink in.

“Now they are beginning to go,” she says, as the splattering of rain can be heard in the puddles outside the schoolhouse. In the past four years, Begum says she has brought about 60 women by bicycle or handcart, across a small stream, to the health center for delivery.

While more mothers are giving birth in the health center, they are not receiving the benefits that was promised to them, Begum says. The government gives the 1,400 rupees by check in the mother’s name, but none of the women who live on this island have bank accounts. They do not even have a bank to open an account in.

To get the money, a woman must take a market boat from the island to the mainland and then walk to Mukalmua, the nearest town. If a woman leaves the island at 7 am, she would not return home until 4 pm in the afternoon, Begum says. Most women, who have just given birth and have other responsibilities like older children to care for, do not have the time or resources to spend a day opening a bank account.

Despite the bank account issues, Begum says more and more women agree to give birth at the health center.

“I’m happy that I’m able to serve the community. And I’m happy I can get some income,” Begum says as the crowd of women standing around to listen break into laughter. “After I die, the Lord will bless me.”

This reporting was sponsored by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Learn more about this reporting project.

Follow Hanna’s reporting from Assam on Twitter: @Hanna_India

Apr. 23 2010 — 2:30 pm | 120 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Boat clinics serve India’s isolated villages

Photo: Hanna Ingber Win

GUWAHATI, India — We load up in an SUV and make our way through the streets of Guwahati. It is raining, and much of this major city in northeastern India is flooded. Cars, men pedaling rickshaws and our SUV slowly edge their way through the water-filled streets. The water looks orange, stained from the clay that has eroded from the surrounding hills and clogged Guwahati’s drains. We are headed to meet a boat that will take a group of medical staff and us to visit a remote island on the Brahmaputra River.

A dark cloud forms overhead, and we hope it doesn’t storm. If it rains too hard, the villagers are less likely to come meet the temporary clinic the medical staff will set up on the island. If it storms, our boat won’t be able to go at all. We – like the villagers – are in the hands of the rain.

About 3 million people live along the Brahmaputra, a massive river that stretches from Tibet to Bangladesh. The boat clinics, run by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) with funding from the Indian government and UNICEF, work in 10 of the 15 districts on the river. They have reached over 300,000 people since they began in 2005.

The boats serve some of Assam’s most socially and geographically isolated communities. Most do not have electricity, secondary schools, hospitals, banks, post offices, toilets or much of anything.

“The facilities we take for granted on the mainland haven’t been possible to have on an island,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, the managing trustee of C-NES. Listen to Hazarika describe the communities and need for the boat clinics here.

The villages are a collection of makeshift, thatch-roof homes, rice paddies and fields, farm animals and children. Lots of children. In some of the villages we will visit families had not been using any method of family planning, and it is common for them to have seven or eight kids.

When the villagers have gotten sick or needed care, they have relied on so-called quacks, people who pretend to be doctors and prescribe medication but have no training. The boat clinics bring many of these communities health care for the first time.

The rain continues as our SUV makes its way through Guwahati. The city lives in many centuries at once. The previous day, we had driven just 10 minutes south of the downtown area, which has chains like Reebok and tiny kiosks selling various types of mobile phones, and we saw two men riding down the street bareback on an elephant. They had presumably come into town from a hill village and use the elephant to help with farming.

Today, we head west and drive along a stretch of the Brahmaputra. Boats that offer dinner cruises stand at the dock. A little farther along we spot a group of men gathered in a huddle, bidding on goats. We pass lush green fields that are so bright they look florescent. An old man in a loincloth walks a cow across a bridge as a calf follows closely behind. Girls in green and white matching saris walk to school.

We meet up with another SUV, carrying the C-NES staff, and zigzag through the mud to get to the riverbank. The C-NES boat cook jumps out, takes off his shoes, pulls up his pants and wades into the mud, directing the SUVs over the least-likely-to-get-stuck route.

We make it to the boat. Now to the island.

This reporting was sponsored by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Learn more about this reporting project.

Follow Hanna’s tweets from Assam @Hanna_India

Apr. 13 2010 — 8:21 am | 352 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

A Muslim and a Jew Break Roti in Mumbai

MUMBAI, India — The first surprise comes when she answers the phone. All I know about this woman — let’s call her Fatima — is that she wears a black burqa and niqab that covers her entire face except her eyes.

I call, expecting a timid woman. I know that contrary to the stereotype, many women who wear burqas are highly educated. And yet, I subconsciously assumed Fatima only spoke Urdu or Hindi. I am taken aback when she answers the phone speaking perfect English.

She also sounds friendly and inviting. She calls me “dear.”

I arrive at her home in a Muslim neighborhood in central Mumbai, and she greets me with a warm smile and a hug. “So nice to meet you!” she says at the door.

Fatima is wearing a strikingly fashionable salwar kameez with bright pinks and blues and a delicate blue veil covering her head, shoulders and chest. Had I gotten it wrong, I think to myself. I wanted to meet a woman in a burqa – who’s this lady?

Again, I had consciously known that women only wore the burqa when they left the home or in front of men. But in my imagination, these women were covered in black at all hours of the day and night.

We sit in Fatima’s living room, and she serves me fruit juice and dates. I leave my notebook in my bag, wanting to make her feel comfortable. In hindsight, I think she was more comfortable than I was.

We chat, and she tells me about her ancestors. One had moved to India from Ethiopia, another from Afghanistan and another from Western Europe. They had come as traders.

Her history reminds me of my own. Jews throughout time migrated from country to country often as merchants, acclimating themselves to their new lands while maintaining their own distinct culture. Normally, in an attempt to make an interview subject feel at ease, I might have compared her story to my own. I might have said, “Oh, just like my family!”

This time, I do not.

My Indian friends tell me that I need not be afraid of being Jewish here. This is not the Middle East, they say. It’s not even Austria or Poland. India is one of the few countries in the world where Jews have almost always lived in peace with their neighbors.

After their reassurance, I have decided to be open about my religion. I tweet about celebrating Shabbat, I talk to my friends about my culture, I am writing this article. Being Jewish is a huge part of my identity, and if possible, I’d rather be open about who I am.

And yet, I am still careful.

As Fatima and I chat, she explains Allah’s teachings with a sense of deep love for Islam. She speaks calmly, her body at ease. She shares with me different rules that govern her. “Islam is a way of life,” she says. It teaches one how to live in a peaceful way, at harmony with others.

Prophet Mohammed says don’t kill a bird if you don’t want to eat it, she tells me. Yes, I think to myself, Rabbinic law also forbids hunting for pleasure.

Fatima tells me that Muslims must give a percentage of their annual earnings to charity, called zakat. That is similar to in Judaism, I think to myself. She says she has a small box in her house where her family puts change for the needy. I think of my Sunday school classes at Temple Beth Shalom in New York and remember bringing change each week to add to the tzedukah box sitting on the teacher’s desk.

In the background, we hear a man begin to chant in a low, melodious voice over a loudspeaker. Fatima silently recites the muezzin’s words, and then translates for me the azaan or call to prayer.

Fatima talks like a rabbi, telling a parable with every point she makes. As we sit on her floor and enjoy a lunch of roti, dal and vegetable dishes, she tells me a story about two men walking with a camel. When the young man sits on the camel and the old man walks nearby, people criticize the younger one for making his elder work hard. When they both sit on the camel, the community criticizes them for putting so much weight on the animal. The men jump off, tie the camel’s legs to a stick and carry the animal down the road. People then laugh at them for working while the camel gets a free ride. No matter what you do, Fatima says, people will judge you.

Thinking I will get points for celebrating a Muslim holiday, I bring up the street festival in honor of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday that I had attended the previous week.

Fatima shrivels up her face in a look of disgust. “This is all crap,” she says, pointing out the window. The festival had taken over her streets as shopkeepers blared loud music and men rode by dancing and singing on big trucks.

“Money should go where? To these things? These are pagan habits,” she says. “This is not the way of our Prophet.”

Throughout our conversation, Fatima frequently addresses the issue of men and women being separate. She tells an anecdote about diamonds and says, “Allah made women precious.”

“We are exactly as a yummy cake with a lot of ice cream,” she says. “What happens to it? You see humans pouncing on it, you see flies pouncing on it.”

To protect women from being pounced on like a dessert, they must separate themselves from men.

As Fatima describes the comfort and joy she gets out of following Allah’s direction and covering herself from men, I think of my visit to a Jewish Chabad House in Venice years ago. I had popped in to see the synagogue there, and the rabbi’s wife spotted me — young, eager and open — sat me down for a Kosher lunch and spent two hours explaining to me why Jewish women should follow God’s rules.

Coming from a Reform background, I had been raised believing that women’s equality meant that women should be treated the same as men. This rabbi’s wife turned that argument on its head. She said God viewed women as even more special than men and therefore gave them certain obligations.

The rabbi’s wife described to me the mikvah, a body of water that a woman must cleanse herself in after menstruation. Rather than condemning the practice because it assumes that a woman needs to be purified after menstruation, this woman described the mikvah as a spiritual experience even nicer than going to a spa. Once a month, you go to this separate facility, take off all your clothes, clean your nails and comb your hair and then submerge yourself in a body of water.

Both Fatima and the rabbi’s wife said that women must keep themselves separate because men cannot control themselves. Muslim and Jewish women cover their hair, which is considered super sexy, and must stay out of sight while the men pray, lest they distract them.

As I leave, Fatima and I make a date to meet again. I have been debating if next time I should be open about my own heritage. I want to give Fatima the benefit of the doubt, and I know that my assumption that she might dislike Jews is one more stereotype I have of Muslims in this part of the world.

On the other hand, I am a Jewish reporter working abroad in a time of great hatred against the state of Israel. It is not a myth that many Islamist extremists associate all Jews with a state they consider evil. While Fatima is not an extremist, I know nothing about her neighbors and friends.

At the end of the day, I am still scared.

I begin to realize that I am not going to be telling Fatima I am Jewish. One meeting with a woman who has thus far shattered all my prejudices is not going to crush this last one. Assuming that there may be some in Fatima’s wider community who may wish me harm or could cause problems for me is one prejudice that will not be broken down so easily. At least not yet.

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India

Apr. 5 2010 — 9:22 am | 594 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

Twitter Suicide

MUMBAI, India — My mother took it the hardest. “There must be a number you can call,” she said, practically pleading with me over the phone. “They are a company – they must have customer service.”

“I tried, Mom,” I said. “They won’t fix it. We have to move on.”

Hours earlier, while my mother was sleeping, content in thinking her daughter had hundreds of followers, I hit one seemingly innocuous but very bad button. In a second, I went from having a community of friends, readers, supporters, sources and confidants – to having no one.

I had accidentally deleted my Twitter account.

I had been trying to change my settings so that my tweets no longer automatically appeared on my Facebook page. It was a Saturday morning; I was a bit hungover; the coffee had not yet sunk in (any other excuses I can come up with?). The page asked if I wanted to deactivate, I hit yes.

Wrong move.

At first, I did not comprehend the damage I had done. I refreshed my Twitter page over and over, but I could not find my home base. I kept getting the same message. In big bold letters, it said: “You deactivated your account.”

Where were the big bold letters 30 seconds ago? Where were the flashing lights and sirens, screaming: “Stop, you idiot! You are about to kill your online identity!”

I did not freak out. OK, I thought, I deactivated my account. That was stupid, but it shouldn’t be too hard to fix. We all know that whatever we put online will stay there forever.

I read closer.  “Account restoration is currently unavailable.”

Huh, that does not sound good.

And then, as if I was not already feeling like an idiot, Twitter says: “Here is the message you agreed to before deactivating your account: This action is permanent…”

Still in a state of denial, I refused to believe “permanent” meant “permanent.” I needed help, and like I often do when I need assistance, I reached out to my online world.

I had spent the past four months growing a community of people to help me understand India and its way of life. I work from home, and my followers had become like colleagues who I could quickly tap for advice or guidance. When I wanted information on how to celebrate an upcoming Hindu holiday or clues as to why my housekeeper left empty eggshells in my windowsills, I posted a message on my page. My followers quickly offered me assistance. (Eggshells, it turns out, are intended to keep lizards away.)

When I needed to find a place to celebrate Passover, I tweeted, “Have 3 days left to find a seder .. does anyone have Jewish Indian friends in Mumbai?” A half dozen of my followers chimed in with information on synagogues in the city. One offered to put me in touch with her friend living in Pune, a couple hours away. Others retweeted my request, spreading the word that a guest in their country needed assistance.

Again, I was sure my Twitter followers would come to the rescue. I signed on using a different handle that I had recently created but never used, @HannaIngber. I typed: “I somehow killed my Hanna_India account. This is very sad. Any one know how to fix?”

But then I realized that I did not have a single follower. Deflated, I typed one last line. “I am talking to no one.”

As I futilely searched Google for answers, the seriousness of the situation began to hit me. I felt all alone.

I continued to type on my Twitter page, though it was now less like a noisy cafeteria and more like a diary.

“I really don’t want to start over with no friends,” I typed to myself. “It’s like moving to a new city and knowing no one. I have already done that.”

To keep the depression at bay, I got to work finding friends. Using my new handle, I began looking for my old community. I felt like a high school student who had lots of friends during the school year, but then went away for summer camp while everyone else stayed home and partied together. Here I was, returning in September, knocking on the door and asking if they might take me in again.

To my delight, they did. One by one, my @Hanna_India followers opened up and accepted @HannaIngber.

Though not without some teasing. “Accidents do happen, Glad no one is hurt ;) ,” wrote @cbinoy.

“Before deactivation Twitter should ask: ‘Are you sure you aren’t sleepy, drunk or otherwise incapacitated?’ ” a fellow reporter wrote.

As messages from Twitter that people were following @HannaIngber began to trickle into my inbox, I grappled with all I had lost. In addition to an audience for my every tweet, I had lost an online record of 140-word thoughts on moving to a new land. I had been mostly using Twitter to record my impressions of Mumbai as I came to call this place home. Now, those first impressions were gone.

Luckily, though, I did not have to grieve alone. My new followers sympathized with my loss and offered condolences and help.

“You seem remarkably perky in face of such great tragedy. Many ppl wd hv got a stroke on thought of deleting SocMed accts,” wrote @c_aashish.

@polgrim tweeted: “Hey folks @HannaIngber is feeling at a loss for not being @Hanna_India anymore. Please follow her and show her some love.”

A few days later, just as I had come to terms with my loss, I got a new message in my inbox. It was the Twitter helpdesk, responding to my pleas. “Charles” informed me that they had magically brought @Hanna_India back to life. No details, no explanation, sometimes less is more. I was back.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this near-death experience. First, mom is (almost) always right. Second, nothing is permanent. And finally, don’t mess with your social network settings before the second cup of coffee.

If this column did not make it clear, please follow Hanna here: @Hanna_India

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    About Me

    Hanna Ingber Win is a multi-media journalist based in Mumbai, India. In addition to blogging for True/Slant, she works as GlobalPost's correspondent in Mumbai and marketing consultant. Most recently, Hanna was the founding World Editor of the Huffington Post, and she won InterAction's 2009 Award for Excellence in International Reporting in recognition of the HuffPost's foreign coverage.

    Hanna has also lived and worked in Burma, Thailand, South Africa and the States. She has a passion for telling stories about people and how they live.

    She has covered maternal health in Ethiopia, police misconduct in South Africa, migrant workers in Malaysia, Iraqi refugees in San Diego and juvenile sex offenders in Los Angeles.

    Hanna's freelance work has appeared in Washingtonpost.com, LA Weekly and the Hartford Courant and on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "Day2Day."

    She received her undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and her master's in journalism from USC Annenberg, where she was a Dean's Scholar.

    Twitter: http://twitter.com/Hanna_India

    Email: hingber@gmail.com

    See my profile »
    Followers: 23
    Contributor Since: January 2010