The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, set between the Himalayas to the east and the Taj Mahal to the west, is home to Maggie Acosta ’16 this summer. She is studying how a government program affects Indian women’s experiences of pregnancy and giving birth. “My goal is to learn about the factors that influence birth location, women’s experiences at home and in institutions, and ultimately, what types of services women want,” she writes in an email. Ultimately, she hopes to “bring their grievances forward at the local, district, and state level.”
Acosta, a neuroscience major and anthropology minor, received funding for her work from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund. The fund enables Bowdoin students to work directly in the service of disadvantaged populations
In June, Acosta, her research partner, and translator drove for nearly an hour through dry, rocky countryside several times a week to talk to women in small villages in the Chunar area. Once they arrived at a village, Acosta and Sandhya-ji gathered on cots inside the women’s homes to talk about their experiences with the healthcare system. Throughout July and August, Acosta is spending time in the Lucknow region, where she is monitoring and evaluating the services that local health centers offer.
The present situation in India tries to incentivize women to give birth in a government institution or approved private hospital. However, many women would prefer to use dais (local birth attendants) instead. “[D]ais…have years of experience and skill delivering babies, but the government discourages using their services even for low-risk births,” Acosta says.
Acosta first learned about dais in a philosophy class she took when she studied abroad in India. She was fascinated and impressed by their work, and says that “since then I’ve spent a lot of time reading about their work.” To her, dais were “a perfect intersection of all my interests —early development, women’s rights, biomedicalization, medical anthropology, international services. I didn’t think I would ever find a way to integrate all my interests, but somehow it happened!”
During her semester abroad, Acosta emailed an Indian gynecologist and health activist whose work she admired. “She immediately connected me with a number of health workers and activists, and by that point, I wasn’t thinking about anything else. It literally became all I talked about for a number of months!,” Acosta recalls. [This network helped Acosta
Acosta says she has been passionate about public health work for some time, and this passion has sent her around the globe, from Peru to Mexico, and now India.
The women she has met this summer, both in the villages and in the workplace, have further inspired Acosta to pursue work public health. A rising senior, Acosta plans to attend medical school after graduating, and she hopes to return to India and continue the work she has started. “I’ve felt immensely grateful to women who trust me enough to speak with me and who persist to fight for their rights. I’ve felt honored to be given their time, impressed by the scale of accomplishments they’ve made, and astounded by the skills of local birth attendants,” she writes.
“Each woman is stronger and more knowledgeable than she is often given credit for, and when we can look past the stereotypes of ‘poor,’ ‘oppressed’ women, we can see the ways in which women regularly empower themselves. Why not ask them what they want, what they think?,” Acosta asks. I think the motto of one partner-based program says it all: ‘Meri Swasthya, Meri Aawaz’ (My Health, My Voice).”