Fellow Since 1992
This description of Mira Sadgopal's work was prepared when Mira Sadgopal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.
Drawing on her seventeen years of experience as a health professional in rural India, Dr. Mira Sadgopal develops materials and training mechanisms under her program, Fertility Awareness Education (FAE), which empowers women with the means to understand and control their own bodies.
The New Idea
Mira offers women a way to resist the ugly politics of population control policies. Broadly defined, FAE focuses on helping people to learn about the biological, cultural, and sociopolitical aspects of human reproduction and sexuality. Spreading this knowledge via local trainers, Mira provides women with the ability to monitor their own fertility and to learn and choose methods by which to control the size of their families and spacing of their children. To Mira, this is not merely a family planning program but a critical gender and human rights issue. Thus, FAE addresses not solely issues of population control or family planning, but rather an entire "people's science." In Mira's conception, FAE builds on the abundant "cultural skills" people have developed at the grassroots level - in this case, the knowledge rural women have about their own bodies and fertility. "But," in Mira's words, "however strong this sense may be in any group of women, the thwarting forces imposing upon them are greater." Shame and other barriers prevent them from sharing and utilizing this knowledge.For women, FAE reaffirms the knowledge they have of their own bodies as well as integrates their thoughts, observations, and new experiences with traditional knowledge. Moreover, it spurs them to act with conviction on the intelligent conclusions they draw on. In this manner, FAE serves as an empowering force for women in society, hitting squarely at the myths of female stereotypes, such as impurity and lack of intelligence.Finally, Mira envisions FAE as having the potential to achieve even larger goals, such as bridging the gap between rural and urban women. Because FAE is taught verbally and is completely accessible to the non-literate, Mira has been able to utilize illiterate village women as trainers in the urban area. As Mira states, "Our FAE team's exploratory experience has demonstrated that non-literate, poor Indian village women can succeed eloquently in explaining the finer aspects of fertility to middleclass town women. This kind of unorthodox interaction supports the development of selfesteem among women who are intimidated by the greater formal education of others."
Millions of women in rural India, as well as other parts of the developing world, have no access to clear, reliable information about how to monitor and manage their fertility. Most population policies focus on reducing the number of births, rather than women's overall reproductive health, and thus treat women as unintelligent and undependable: virtual biological "targets." Cultural standards and a belief that women are not capable of understanding the biological workings of their own bodies prevent male doctors from discussing the actual process of fertility and reproduction with their patients. While many women in the developing world want ways to control when and how often they conceive, they fear the side effects of contraceptives and sterilization operations. In addition, large numbers of rural health workers do not know themselves how contraceptives work and provide few facts to demystify the process. Supplies of contraceptives can be well below demand, and often the pill and IUD are dispensed without adequate followup by a trained health professional.
Working from her base in Pune, Maharastra, Mira is refining and expanding the materials of FAE she has already developed, seeking input from sympathetic family planning associations, women's organizations, and medical doctors in the areas of behavioral science, reproductive biology, and gynecology. She fieldtests her educational aids - booklets, charts, models, posters, slides - among various groups such as teenagers in Pune, rural women in Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra, health workers (primarily female), teachers, and medical professionals.The subjects she covers include the anatomy and physiology of fertility; cultural aspects of fertility; reproduction and sexuality; sex education for children and youth; sexual and reproductive health care; birth control safety, skills, and options; sexual and reproductive abuse and violence; and ecology, economics, and population. Once feedback is in, Mira refines her FAE curriculum and begins the main area of work - training.To make FAE acceptable and beneficial to the maximum number of women, most non-literate, and to family planning practitioners, she asks the women to help her incorporate images from their everyday lives and traditions into her materials. Through this process, not only do the materials become more accessible, but the women become full partners in the process of developing and implementing FAE, rather than living population targets.Drawing on her strong ties to women's associations - activist, academic, and grassroots Mira teaches them how to implement FAE and integrate it into their outreach programs. She conducts workshops, classes, and lectures for citizen organizations, community workers, health professionals, teachers, and parents. In the final stage, she will produce a handbook to guide field groups in launching FAE programs. Her ultimate goal is to have FAE become a program widely used throughout India by community organizations and health workers working with women.
American by birth, Mira Sadgopal has lived in India for twentyfour years, has been an Indian citizen since 1977, holds a medical degree from Bombay University, and speaks Hindi and Marathi. For seventeen years, she lived and worked at Kishore Bharati, a communitybased rural development cooperative in Madhya Pradesh, whose founders include scientists, engineers, health professionals, and other social activists. There she put her medical training to work by starting a women's cooperative for distributing drugs and medications; conducted a team study of child mortality; held FAE workshops and training; and worked to strengthen traditional homeopathic medicine under assault by the Westerninfluenced prescription drug culture. Mira also provided health care to victims of the Bhopal chemical disaster for six months in 1985. When Kishore Bharati came to what its founders viewed as a natural end in 1991, Mira shifted her base to Pune.She now writes, lectures, and conducts workshops throughout India about women's empowerment, health, and fertility. Well known and respected by national and grassroots women's organizations throughout India, she is working to build these ties further at conferences and workshops commonly as a resource person. She uses their organizations (with their established information outlets, village and neighborhood workers, and public credibility) as the multipliers that will carry her ideas and materials to the hundreds of millions of Indian women for whom gaining control of a key aspect of their lives represents a very important liberation.