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UCL alumni interview: Himani Gupta, artist

Sian EGardiner1 August 2019

Himani Gupta, UCL alumnusHimani Gupta studied international real estate and urban planning at The Bartlett from 2011-2012. Having worked as a spatial designer and a consultant for Ernst & Young in Delhi, Himani is now working full time as an artist, specialising in painting.

We spoke to her to find out more about her experience at UCL and how she stays in touch with the UCL community.

How did you come to study at UCL?

Firstly, because I love the campus and I’d been following it for a while. Secondly, I found the work that’s been done at the Bartlett very relevant to the direction I wanted to go in professionally. Before doing my masters I used to be a spatial designer, but I wanted to get onto the other side which was understanding the business of cities and how infrastructure and real estate are developed around them.

How did you find studying at UCL?

It was a really enriching experience because I got to learn about the politics of space in Europe and the real estate markets in China and the Middle East. The freedom we had in terms of things like choosing our dissertation was great. I could also make it more India-centric, which helped me immensely after UCL in terms of getting a job in Management Consulting in the Urban field in India, as I’d written on similar topics for my masters.

Compared to my undergrad degree in Business Studies in India, UCL was more analysis-based. It took some time but once I got used to the structure of the course it opened up a new way of looking at things, which helped me in my job in the real world and still helps me now.

What was it like living in London?

I’ve always loved London so the city was very familiar to me. I lived in Bayswater in West London so I’d cycle or walk down to the campus. We organised Thursday drinks at the UCL bar, which became a hub for us each week. I found the balance between a lot of study and a lot of socialising quite enriching.

It’s all so centrally located and I liked that we had classes in different locations across the campus; I explored all sorts of hidden buildings. Now I’m an artist and my work is about psycho-geography and understanding layers of space, and the fact that I walked quite a bit while studying in London has shaped my approach to my work.

What would your advice be for a student in India looking to study at UCL?

Figure out funding very early on and give yourself a strict budget. Once you have that figured out life at UCL and in London is very easy.  At UCL, you have an account to access a student/teaching portal where all the modules and submissions are in one place. It’s really cool because one can study anywhere. UCL has a lot of libraries and quiet corners to study, which was one of my favourite parts. I’d say try and explore as many nooks and corners as possible around the campus.

What aspects of the culture did you enjoy?

The fact that you get to hear a different language every square foot or two. Because I’m a walker I take in and absorb London as I walk through it, and as you do you get an insight into how many cultures and backgrounds exist together in this city.

The art scene and the number of galleries in London is phenomenal and the shops that offer material really works for me. Also, the food! Which is a direct function of the number of cultures that exist here.

Even after graduation, I make it a point to visit UCL on my trips to London to catch up with old and new connections.

How have you kept in touch with the UCL community?

I moved back to India in 2013 but I recently wrote to another good friend of mine from my course who’s very active in New York with the UCL alumni group there. He put me in touch with UCL’s alumni team, and through them I got involved with volunteering in Delhi. I organised a reunion event in Delhi a few months ago – about 26 of us came together for a casual mixer event at the art-themed homestay I run.

I was curious to bring together people from different professions and initiatives not just for myself but for everyone present. It’s also a great way to form new social groups. I now look forward to more events and more people volunteering in Delhi. I’m happy to open up my studio (which can accommodate up to 35 people) to those interested in having an Arts and Culture themed reunion mixer.Himani Gupta art

Tell us about your work.

I’ve got my hands in a lot of pies! I used to work in spatial design before doing my masters then I came back to India and I started working as a consultant with Ernst and Young. So I used to be in management consulting in the infrastructure and smart cities team.

I’ve also been a painter for the last fifteen years and after deciding to leave consulting I wanted to focus on it full time. My visual arts practice is drawn from my very diverse experiences in education, professions and travels. Urban and spatial exploration has been a research interest of mine for a long time and what I try and study through my art is the idea of psychogeography and understanding the materiality of space. My medium in art is painting primarily and I create large pieces of work. I work with pigments and paint. Lately, I have been creating a lot of smaller works based on mapping.

What are you working on with the Slade?

Through my work as a UCL volunteer, I was introduced to Deborah Padfield, an artist and professor at the Slade who is exploring how chronic pain is communicated through the arts in a project called Visualising Pain.

She wanted to work with a local artist and although pain is not my direct subject, the fact I could use paint and pigment in order to help chronic pain sufferers communicate their pain better motivated me to get involved. I ended up co-facilitating a workshop with Deborah (and others) in Delhi in May 2019. It went really well and made an impact on our participants who battle chronic pain everyday.

How has UCL helped you to achieve your ambitions?

It’s interesting because before coming to UCL I wasn’t particularly motivated to do ‘well’ in the conventional sense – whether that’s an educational qualification or a job – my pace was a lot slower. Which is not necessarily a bad thing but in my case I wasn’t achieving too much or doing too much with my time.

I think UCL and my experience of living in London really inspired me and opened up a channel which I never knew existed in me, which is that of wanting to achieve and working hard. I got into the habit of maintaining a diary, organising myself better, understanding before speaking or describing. I started being meticulous about my work and had I not gone through this change I would still be very bohemian and less results orientated.

UCL would love to hear from more alumni in India and around the world.  

Get in touch and find out more about volunteering at ucl.ac.uk/alumni

Ask an Academic: Professor David Osrin

GuestBlogger24 July 2019

By Ian Morton

Professor David Osrin is Professor of Global Health at UCL and a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Science. Based in Mumbai since 2004, he works in an urban health research collaboration with SNEHA (the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action).

Researching within the broad remit of urban health, he is particularly interested in complex social interventions and research ethics, and art and science’s utility in raising public awareness of health. We spoke to David to find out more about his life and work in India…

Can you give us a brief overview of your research in India?

My research has come a long way since I first began working in India in 2004. I started out looking at ways to improve the health of newborn babies in the Mumbai region, working with an excellent organisation called SNEHA. More recently though I’ve been working with organisations like SNEHA to tackle violence against women – an increasingly important issue in India.

I also work closely with the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai, the Family Planning Centre of India, and other health professionals in the area.

What got you interested in the subject in the first place?

When I first began working here, I noticed how committed and passionate everyone was about improving public health in India. It was this passion which inspired me to pursue my research to the extent that I have.

While public health has been an issue for a long time, it’s only in the last decade that violence against women has been a mainstream topic in India. Thanks to a number of landmark legal cases the Government has begun to take the issue much more seriously, and I’m so pleased our research techniques are being used to make a difference.

What difference do you hope it will make?

My vision is to contribute to a social transformation that is taking place throughout the world with respect to equality. In the case of India, my hope is that it will continue to lead to a reduction in violence against women. One of the things that stands out for me is that when we bring the local community together, anything is possible!

Can you tell us about the Institute’s relationship with India?

The Institute of Urban Health is not the only part of UCL working in India of course, and there are other colleagues at the Institute doing great work here too. Together with our partners, we’ve succeeded in engaging state level government in India to bring about some significant policy changes. As well as the work I’ve been doing there, Dr Audrey Prost has also achieved some great results with another Indian NGO called Ekjut – on improving the health and nutrition of new born children and adolescents.

What can UCL learn from your time working in India? What can the UK learn?

Aside from collaborating with people with a different background and outlook to my own, I’ve seen the power when communities come together to tackle societal challenges like public health. Legal intervention, emotional support and shelter are needs that we all share, so what we learn in India can be applied to the UK and vice versa.

What are some of your highlights from living in India?

Having being involved in some hugely important and large-scale research projects, in true collaboration with equal partners, to deliver world-class research.

I’m proud of the fact that during my time here we’ve seen the transformation of countless individuals. I’m also really proud of the public engagement work we’ve done, bringing together the disciplines of health, art and science, which led to a hugely successful festival called Dharavi (or Alley Galli) Biennale.

What has it been like working in the Indian slums?

I am very privileged to spend my working days in an informal settlement but not to live there. Not everyone has that privilege. The impact on me has been profound, and the importance I place on certain things is very different now to when I was living in the West.

The challenges associated with finding clean water, a shelter to withstand the elements, and the need for electricity have all given me a greater appreciation of the basic health and wellbeing needs we all share.

What would you like to say to other academics at UCL thinking of collaborating with others in India?

I think they should absolutely collaborate here if they can. In my view, the academic and research capability of teachers in India is on a par with the UK. Also, I’ve never experienced being hampered by the government structures in place in India. In fact, quite the opposite.

The number of people who are willing to participate in the research has also been incredibly valuable for my research. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in India among the public for taking part in research – perhaps more so than the UK.

It goes without saying that the intercultural interaction which informs my research has also enhanced my experience here.

Empowering women in Bangladesh: My time volunteering with the Maternal Aid Association

GuestBlogger28 January 2019

By Yasmin Abedin

Yasmin is a fifth year Medical student at UCL. Here, she blogs about her time spent volunteering for the charity Maternal Aid Association (Maa) in Bangladesh. 

Empower (/em-pow-er/) verb
Make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

Women globally experience inequalities in all areas of society, from the workplace to healthcare.

Growing up in an all-female home, my mum instilled in me the importance of feeling positive about yourself, but also of being a force of positivity for those around you, especially women who have not had the same opportunities.

Guided by this driving force, in August 2018, I worked with the charity ‘Maternal Aid Association’ (Maa), leading their flagship project in Bangladesh, JourneyMaa.

Maa has a simple aim: to revolutionise maternal healthcare in resource-poor settings across the developing world.

Maternal health camps

JourneyMaa is a stepping-stone towards this goal and provides free maternal health camps and education to hundreds of pregnant women living in rural Bangladesh, by establishing a unique collaboration between volunteers from the UK and healthcare professionals from Bangladesh.

The maternal health camps involved conducting basic health checks, which are vital in preventing and detecting complications during pregnancy. These included blood pressure, urine dipstick and blood glucose measurements to screen for conditions such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, some of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Bangladesh.

Emotional strength

From speaking to pregnant women, I was struck by how common it was for women to miscarry and experience neonatal deaths in Bangladesh.

The emotional strength it must take to overcome such a tragedy is unimaginable. What makes this even more shocking is that with better maternal healthcare, many losses could have been prevented.

In addition to health camps for pregnant women, we provided educational seminars for young girls to tackle the deep-rooted stigma surrounding the topic of menstruation. In many cultures, including Bengali culture, women are generally considered ‘unclean’ during menstruation. 

Due to these beliefs, there are various restrictions placed on menstruating women, as well as unsafe sanitary practices that occur.

For example, menstrual rags are used repeatedly and often improperly washed without soap and dried in damp conditions, which can fester with bacteria and insects. This poses a potentially life-threatening infection risk to girls.

Combatting stigma

To address this, we delivered educational talks and created an open space for discussion about periods to combat stigma and help the girls understand how to maintain good menstrual health. It was inspiring to hear the thoughts of the girls both before and after the seminars as it highlighted how their confidence had improved when speaking about what is traditionally a taboo topic.

Pre-seminar, they were apprehensive and shy when asked about their experience with periods. However, post-seminar, the confident manner in which they were discussing menstrual hygiene was fantastic – I was moved by their enthusiasm for learning and progression.

Bottom-up approach

I believe female empowerment through education is a strong tool to make long-lasting and widespread change. Educating women and girls has positive ripple effects in society, particularly through bottom up approaches. A bottom-up approach refers to the idea that individual actions can have a huge impact when adopted by many.

The girls we spoke to were keen on spreading their knowledge to their mothers and aunts, which meant the knowledge they acquired would span across multiple generations. These girls are the ambassadors of charge that is so desperately needed.

Educating a girl is a critical investment into their future, as well as the future of their country. As stated in a UNICEF report: “When you educate a girl, you educate a whole nation”.

Working with Maa has been incredible, and I am thrilled to be working again in Bangladesh this summer as the project manager of JourneyMaa 2019. With passionate individuals at its forefront, Maa is on its way to revolutionise global maternal healthcare, one step at a time.

Supporting policy development and education practices in Myanmar

Annelise BAndersen13 November 2017

Ministry of Education officials in Nay Pyi Taw with UCL’s Prof Marie Lall and Jonathan Dale after the workshop

Ministry of Education officials in Nay Pyi Taw with UCL’s Prof Marie Lall and Jonathan Dale after the workshop

This past summer, Professor Marie Lall, UCL’s Pro-Vice-Provost for South Asia, travelled to Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, with Jonathan Dale from UCL Institute of Education’s London Leadership Centre.

In Yangon they delivered a two-day workshop on school leadership to 90 head teachers from the state, monastic, ethnic and private sectors. A few academic colleagues from Yangon and Mandalay University, as well as some teacher trainers from teacher education colleges, also attended. The Myanmar partner ‘Smile Education’, a local NGO, arranged for participants to come from across the country including some remote and conflict-affected areas.

In Nay Pyi Taw Professor Lall and Mr Dale delivered a one-day workshop on policy development to 18 Ministry of Education (MoE) officials. All were senior civil servants, most holding the post of director general of their departments. After the workshop, they were asked to do an interactive briefing with government MPs sitting on the education select committees of the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament.

Professor Lall said: “Myanmar is in a reform phase and there is a great need for capacity building at government level. I have worked with different stakeholders across the board for over a decade. However, I have never worked directly with the MoE till now and it’s unusual to have access to the heads of all departments of one ministry. The event was a resounding success.”

Since the country opened up in 2012, it has been awash with aid agencies and universities who offer help and capacity building. However, UCL’s advantage is that Professor Lall has worked in the country since 2004/5 and therefore has a reasonably good understanding of the needs that arise out of the reform process within the field of education. “UCL’s unique position can be different in that we meet actual needs without trying to impose programmes that have little relevance to the complicated local context,” added Prof Lall.

As a consequence of this activity, Professor Lall and Mr Dale recently won a new £150,000 British Council grant focused on ‘Supporting the Transformation of Higher Education in Myanmar’.

These efforts are part of UCL’s growing engagement with Myanmar that aims to build capacity across the public sector as the country continues its reform process.

If you would like to learn more about UCL’s work in Myanmar, please contact Professor Lall at m.lall@ucl.ac.uk.

UCL film collaboration in India featured at Bloomsbury Festival 2017

JasonLewis20 October 2017

Bloomsbury Festival is is a five-day celebration of the area’s pioneering creativity. A recent collaboration between UCL’s Theo Bryer and Rebecca Wilson and partners in India was among work featured at this year’s festival, which ran from 18-22 October.

UCL Institute of Education’s Theo Bryer and Rebecca Wilson ran drama and filmmaking sessions with young people in and around Bengaluru for two weeks in July 2017, as part of a project supported by the UCL Global Engagement Funds.

Theo and Rebecca meeting with meeting Ms Kalpana Singh (L), head of Parikrma Humanity Foundation

Theo and Rebecca meeting with meeting Ms Kalpana Singh (L), head of Parikrma Humanity Foundation

They collaborated with Sangam, a local education centre, and worked with young people from Parikrma Humanity Foundation School, Delhi Public School and Baale Mane girls’ home.

Together the team ran a series of workshops, developed for groups of thirty, after which the participants were invited to produce short films in small groups.

Lecturer Theo and ICT Teaching Support Analyst Rebecca said they were particularly interested in finding out how approaches to filmmaking using iPads worked in these very different contexts.

“We were given a very warm reception in all our partner organisations” said Theo. “Sharing ideas with the incredible teachers, educationalists and young people that we met was a highlight of this trip.”

Filming a Melodrama at Parikrma Humanity Foundation School

Filming a Melodrama at Parikrma Humanity Foundation School

Students at Parikrma Humanity Foundation made melodramas based on the stimulus of the arrival of a letter.

At Delhi Public School, they made documentaries based on the model of the AJ+ news items (made by Al Jazeera) that are designed for social media.

At Baale Mane girls’ home, the older girls made melodramas and the younger girls, horror films.

Theo and Rebecca also made three films with a group of homeschooled children based in the local area.

“We were struck by the way in which the visual and cultural aspects of filmmaking facilitated this creative endeavour, so that even the youngest children were able to understand what was expected of them,” added Rebecca.

Filming a documentary about skirt length at Delhi Public School

Filming a documentary about skirt length at Delhi Public School

The outcomes of the project were largely positive. Theo noted: “The touch-screen technology proved as accessible in India as in our projects in the UK, although not all the children have ready access to this kind of technology – not all of them own phones, for example.

“All the young people seemed motivated by the opportunity to share what they had made with their peers, carers and teachers and this awareness of a final audience helped them to shape their work in specific ways.”

Filming a horror film at Baale Mane girls’ home

Filming a horror film at Baale Mane girls’ home

Theo said a total of 24 films were made.

“One of our favourites, Perceptions, is 36 seconds long.

“We suggest that you watch Valuables, Perceptions and The Mummy 2 as examples from each of the places that we worked in.”

 

UCL-IIT Delhi green tech workshop to support rural communities in India

SophieVinter7 September 2017

UCL and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi are to deliver a three-day international workshop focused on finding environmentally friendly solutions to pressing challenges.

The Closed Loop Green Technologies for Rural Communities workshop, hosted at IIT Delhi from 11-13 September, will explore the reuse of solid and food waste for energy generation, improved water resources management, sanitation and energy provision.

Set up through a Newton Bhabha Fund Researcher Links grant, the workshop supports India’s Unnat Bharat Abhiyan programme with its vision of bringing about transformational change by leveraging the knowledge of academic institutions.

Connecting with local communities

Dr. Priti Parikh, Associate Professor at UCL’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, and Dr. Ram Chandra, Energy Bioscience Overseas Fellow (IIT Delhi) are the lead coordinators of the workshop.

Unnat Bharat Abhiyan connects academic institutions with local communities to address development challenges through participatory processes and appropriate technologies.

The event will bring together early career researchers from India and the UK – 15 participants from each country – to identify gaps in research, foster new collaborations, facilitate knowledge exchange, develop ideas for future grant applications and make recommendations to support the implementation of Unnat Bharat Abhiyan.

The Newton Bhabha Fund Researcher Links grant is funded by the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Royal Society of Chemistry and delivered by the British Council.

More information

UCLSat: a collaboration out of this world

JasonLewis26 July 2017

UCL is part of the international satellite mission QB50UCLSat, a satellite designed and built by UCL engineers and scientists, was launched in June from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India as part of an international mission called QB50.

The satellite is now 507km up and going overhead three times a day (six times actually, but three times in working hours).

On the current status of the satellite, Dr Rob Wicks (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction) said: “We have our ground station here and we listen to it every time it goes overhead and we get data back. It’s working well at the moment, touch wood.”

Funded by the European Union, the QB50 mission has involved the launch of a network of CubeSats built by universities all over the world to collectively study the physics and chemistry of the middle and lower thermosphere of the Earth for the first time.

The mission has fostered a lot of collaboration across universities, science institutes and industry partners. For example, two universities in Australia help UCL listen for radio contact with UCLSat, and UCL does the same for them.

“Australian National University and Adelaide University are both helping us out with radio contact with our satellite,” explained Dr Wicks. “And that’s kind of on just a friendly, reciprocal basis. We listen to theirs and they listen to ours. There’s no official paperwork to do with that, but we are just collaborating as friendly institutions.

“It’s one of the great things about QB50 – you have these 50 institutions around the world that are now sort of semi-friendly and talk to one another about radios and satellites and things like that.”

A resounding success

UCL has been involved in the mission since 2011 and, in addition to working on UCLSat, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) engineers also produced hardware for 13 of the other satellites.

The mission has been a resounding success. The failure rate for CubeSats is usually 40%, but the CubeSats launched during the QB50 mission is half that, at 20%.

Speaking of UCL’s achievements and pioneering vision for the project, Dr Wicks added: “UCL should be extremely happy that it has been a leader in this field of big CubeSat missions. The whole mission right from the beginning has been a struggle, because space agencies and a lot of the science community were very negative about CubeSats. They said ‘they are too small and too unrealisable – it’s a waste of time and a waste of money to try and do science with them’.

“I think we are basically proving them wrong – we can use them for education, we can use them for training and we can use them for science. We can keep them cheap. We expect that 20% will fail, but that is better than 40%, and we are going to get real useful scientific data out of it. It is only really now that the science community is waking up to this.”

Student support

UCL students have been heavily involved in the project. Masters students worked with MSSL in the early stages of the project on the design of the satellite and on simulations of the upper atmosphere, among others.

Théophile Brochant de Villiers, who worked on the CubeSat while studying for his MSc in Space Science and Engineering at UCL, is now a technician in the MSSL Department of Space & Climate Physics.

He said: “We were a small team working on UCLSat. This meant there was a lot of work and a lot of tasks that I wasn’t necessarily trained for. So I learned everything on the job; this required being proactive, and not being afraid to seek out help around the lab. I got to know a lot of amazing scientists and engineers which I still regularly interact and work with. This is what I’m most proud of.”

International conference: Mahatma Gandhi in the 21st Century

GuestBlogger5 May 2017

Written by Narinder Kapur, Visiting Professor of Neuropsychology

Gandhi Fellows, their families, UCL's Dr. Caroline Selai and Sreemoyee Chatterjee, a Times of India journalistThe year 2015 saw the unveiling of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square and 2017 is being celebrated in Britain as the India-UK year of culture to mark 70 years of Indian Independence.

These events provided an ideal opportunity to uphold and renew Gandhi’s ideals for the promotion of his principles of nonviolence, tolerance and justice, and for a focus on the problems of the poor and needy in the world.

With these aims in mind, on 28 April 2017 we held an international conference at UCL entitled – Mahatma Gandhi in the 21st Century: Gandhian Themes and Values.

The purpose of the conference was to raise awareness of Gandhian ideals, to encourage people in India and the UK to think about Gandhian issues and values, and to encourage innovation in producing solutions to problems such as poor healthcare, education access and violence in society.

Topics that were covered included Gandhian perspectives on justice, education, nonviolence, and health, as well as a focus on village India and how innovations, such as frugal medical innovations, can be cheaply produced and help common conditions.

Pro-Vice-Provost South Asia Professor Marie Lall (UCL Institute of Education) outlined some of the key collaborations that UCL has with India, and we enlisted eminent speakers from the UK, India and the USA to speak on a range of topics related to Gandhian issues and ideals.

In parallel with the conference, we held a major exhibition of Gandhi-related items, including:

  • Frugal innovation devices in healthcare, to parallel the talk given by Professors Prabhu and Bhargava. This included devices jointly developed by the All India Medical Institute in Delhi and Stanford University, as well as the Jaipur Limb
  • A set of 100 unique photographs provided by GandhiServe in Germany
  • Interactive displays where delegates explored issues related to global citizenship, altruism and moral judgment
  • A virtual reality app built specifically around the Taj Mahal and Gandhi, where delegates could feel what it is like to be at the Taj Mahal and also ‘in the skin’ of Gandhi
  • A Gandhi in Sight and Sound powerpoint presentation that had key speeches and video clips about Gandhi, including a Gandhi ‘Rap’ song by MC Yogi.

In the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, and in order to have maximum participation in the conference, we did not charge for attendance. Since Gandhi was keen for his values and ideals to permeate throughout India, as well as countries such as the UK, we funded five fellowships to enable young Indian citizens to attend the conference.

They were selected as part of an essay competition, with the essay including a focus on how Gandhi is relevant today, and how he can be made more relevant.

Around 100 delegates attended the event, including a journalist from the Times of India.

Beyond Medicine: Difficult Dialogues 2017

JasonLewis3 May 2017

Written by Ina Goel, research scholar at UCL and runs the hijra project

A public health system is a complex intersectional unit of people, institutions and resources determining the heath culture of a society. Prof. Debabar Banerjii explains health culture as  an ecological approach that allows us to analyse epidemiology, cultural perceptions, health technologies and health behaviour within a country. At the recently held Difficult Dialogues conference, I got a chance to be a part of the shifting debates on India’s health culture. My panel was on gender and health, which  looked at gendered determinants of health inequities in India. Key focuses were on issues related to gender-based violence, sexuality and access to reproductive and medical technologies.

Rudrani on Difficult Dialogues 2017 panel

As a social scientist who has spent the last seven years working with the hijra communities (trans communities known as third gender) in India, I was invited to draw on my experience of working in the field. I spoke about the gaps between the policy prescriptions and their implementation when it comes to accessing public health by the hijra communities. I got a chance to meet and interact with other experts in the field from journalism, academia and public policy that helped me strengthen my understanding in an interdisciplinary way. Difficult Dialogues gave me a platform to bring out the discrepancies between well-meaning policies and the living realities of hijra communities in India.

In April 2014, the Supreme Court of India declared that hijras be treated as the third gender. This landmark judgment gave affirmative action to hijras by adding them to the OBC (Other Backward Class) category, as a means of securing this quota. The Supreme Court further directed the Centre and State governments to urgently look into the problems faced by the hijra communities and made recommendations for providing proper medical care and separate public toilets for hijras. On one hand, the hijras are celebrated in Indian society because of their symbolism in representing several androgynous gods.  On the other hand, the hijras are often victims of sexual harassment, abuse and rape, with no laws in place capable of dealing with a hijra rape complaint. Given their socially marginalised status and the prejudices hijras face, the issue of underreporting of crimes against hijras is perhaps understandable. There is also a refusal to accommodate and acknowledge the sexual identities of hijras because there is an anti-sodomy law in practice in India. This contradiction in law means that whilst hijras can officially be recognised as the third gender, it does not allow hijras to openly come out and truly live their lives. We thus have a system that fails to recognise the felt needs of hijras.

In India, many hijras are castrated. Often, it is believed that after castration, the hijra achieves nirwana or rebirth that earns the hijra the power to bless or curse other people. However, according to the Indian Penal Code, the legality of the practice of castration is under question and there is a lack of formal guidelines issued by the Medical Council of India regarding sex-reassignment surgery. Though there are some places that offer surgery to hijras at huge costs, many hijras do not have access to those facilities or the resources to sustain them. Given this constrained situation, many hijras are forced to go to quacks and faith healers to get themselves castrated. Little academic insight exists to address the issue of violence involved in castration given the centrality of the castration operation in hijra communities and the lack of proper routes to access it. Recognising violence as a social determinant to health is critical to understanding the health needs of hijra communities in India.

Resisting violence against hijras should be the first and foremost step that the Indian government should look into. Yes, a promise for a better hijra life is essential but aiming to provide separate public toilets for hijras in a country still struggling to deal with open defecation and manual scavenging might be a little too far-fetched for immediate implementation. For better outreach and improved accessibilities, public health policy makers should recognise the relationship between the living experiences of hijras and theoretical understanding of them. The big question remains the same: How do we  ensure true equity for those who need it the most?

The theme for Difficult Dialogues 2018 is gender with the hope of finding better solutions to such difficult questions.

 

Photo: Rudrani (c) (hijra activist and founder of India’s first Transgender Modelling Agency)

References:

Banerji, D (1985): Health and Family Planning Services in India: An Epidemiological, Socio-cultural and Political Analysis and a Perspective, Lok Paksh, New Delhi

 

Difficult Dialogues 2017: A Summary

SujithaSelvarajah22 February 2017

Sujitha is a UCL global health graduate and final year medical student

UCL was knowledge partner for Difficult Dialogues 2017, which attracted a wide range of speakers Over 250 people from across the world participated in Difficult Dialogues last week, exploring issues like access to healthcare, the recent India budget speech, and the intrinsic link between sociocultural beliefs and health.

To say that this is a comprehensive summary of the conference would be a disservice to the complexity of the discussions that took place in Goa.  This blog will explore three points of discussion that I believe hold significance for health not only in India, but around the world.

  1. Whose responsibility is health?

“Be proactive and responsible for your own health.  What you can do for your own health, no one else can do.” – Manisha Koirala, Bollywood actress and breast cancer survivor

Manisha Koirala’s message of taking responsibility for your health being key to disease prevention is a familiar one, for most of us know who you avoid if you eat an apple a day. My question is what if not everyone has the same access this apple? What if it is an uneven playing field? Some have orchards in their back gardens, others have to travel for days across cities to even lay eyes on an apple and some don’t even know what an apple is, let alone its significance in keeping the doctor away.

The question I’m asking is what about the role of the state, in providing education, transport, access and facilities etc, in providing the context in which individuals can then take responsibility for their health. There needs to be a balance between the onus being on the individual and the responsibility of the state in providing an environment conducive to individuals making healthy choices.

UCL Professors Monica Lakhanpaul and Marie Lall were among speakers at Difficult Dialogues 2017As Dr Aarathi Prasad, of UCL’s Office of the Vice-Provost (Research), said: “Where people live and how they live, greatly impacts their health.” Being a UCL student, I was introduced to the social determinants of health very early on in my career in a lecture by the pioneer Professor Sir Michael Marmot.  It continues to have a lasting influence on how I question and understand health.  Why don’t we look at the causes of the causes? Why is it that some people smoke more than others? How can there be a 20-year difference in life expectancy between two neighbouring towns? Looking at it from this perspective, it is not easy in the sense that there are no quick solutions. It requires multi-sectoral input. Unfortunately there is no single vaccine, no magic bullet that will provide universal health coverage. The complexity of this was touched upon by Professor Venkatapuram of King’s College London, in the opening panel discussion with the poignant question: “ How do we make for example, the minister of transport, care about health?”

  1. How do we make health a priority for policy makers?

There was a lot of discussion about the recent India budget speech, with many calls for the Indian government to increase its public spending on health and the key role of civil society and citizens in making health a priority for policy makers. This was something that came up numerous times over the three days. The role of the media in bridging this gap between policy makers and the rest of society is central to this discussion. Abantika Ghosh, journalist and writer for the Indian Express put forward her views on the relationship between health and journalism in India: “There is a huge readership for stories about scientific breakthroughs. Something that may not make it to the hospitals in the next ten years generates a lot of excitement because it is something exotic. It is like reading science fiction. On the other hand public health, which is so much more important, so much emergent a need, gets much more neglected in the media space.”

This difficulty expressed by Ghosh is unlikely to be experienced by India alone, but also shared across the world. As Dame Anne Johnson (UCL’s Vice-Dean International for Population Health Sciences) said: “The problems India facing are global problems – we all have them.”

The media has the potential to play a huge role in raising awareness of health issues among the public and also in holding the government accountable. The work of Sohini Chattopadhyay, an independent journalist, is a clear example of this. Chattopadhyay carried out an undercover investigation unearthing shocking findings about the quality of care and experiences of women during childbirth in a particular labour room in Calcutta. Whilst not quite meeting the Millennium Development Goal for reduction in Maternal Mortality, India has seen a significant decrease. As Chattopadhyay stated: “That kind of improvement is incredible, but ten years down the line, we have to talk about a little more than ‘Is the woman alive after childbirth?’ We have to start talking about qualitative experiences.”

  1. Is grassroots organisation a substitute for policy?

This was in fact a question asked by David Osrin, UCL Professor of Global Health, during the arts and health workshop. The primary aim of the summit was to collate at least one policy recommendation from each panel discussion and before presenting them to the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. For me, the numerous examples of existing projects making a tangible impact on communities was at the forefront of what makes Difficult Dialogues a force for change.

UCL partners with a range of organisations in IndiaDelan Devakumar’s work crafting short films on topics like child marriage and organising screenings to raise awareness and catalyse discussion is just one of many examples.  Professor Osrin’s work in the Dharavi Slums with the Alley Galli Biennale is a beautiful demonstration of how art can intersect with community and health.  The two-year process led to an exhibition, blending art and science to share information on urban health and showcase the contribution of the Dharavi people to Mumbai’s economic and cultural life. With four themes – art, health, recycling and vitality – the Biennale invited Dharavi residents to meet, educate themselves on urban health, learn new skills, and produce locally resonant artworks that were authentic, honest and relevant.

Recently UCL partnered with Symbiosis International University to evaluate existing health, education and sanitation interventions within the Pune district. Devaki Gokhale, Assistant Professor at Symbiosis University said: “This partnership with UCL is an exhilarating experience, the sharing of ideas, thought provoking discussions, listening to the needs and concerns expressed by villagers from a different lens and, through a holistic approach, feels prolific.”

Community interventions and policy are not mutually exclusive, and nor should they be. However, there are distinct gaps where policy is far from having a real impact on people’s lives. This is the ideal space for projects like these to flourish and make a difference.

Difficult Dialogues tackled a range of health issuesAt the heart of all these grassroots projects are partnerships. Whether between institutions, or even on an individual basis. It is clear that we have a lot to learn from each other. Sneh Bhargava, India’s first female radiologist and recent director of the All India Medical Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS), was a figure Ina Goel (UCL PhD student) learnt about and looked up to in school. When they met, Ina was in awe of her work as a trailblazer in the field of medicine and Sneh was fascinated by Ina’s essay on universal health care.

When health is something so clearly impacted by politics, economics, and sociocultural factors, maybe the bringing together of different perspectives and background to achieve common goals, should be an approach taken not only in the community and among universities, but also at state level. Perhaps the key is to figure out how to make the transport minister care about health after all?