Times of India Interview with Carol

This article was originally published in TimesofIndia.com, on April 14, 2014.

EXPERT EYE: Kanchan Gogate reports

Demographically speaking

On her tour to India, Carol Vlassoff, adjunct professor, Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine, University of Ottawa, Canada, talks about her research in rural India and career avenues in demography and allied fields.

Intrigued by India’s vast demography and cultural diversity, Carol Vlassoff, adjunct professor, Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine, University of Ottawa, Canada conducted a detailed research about gender preferences in Gove, a small village in Satara district of Western Maharashtra. With a long career in international development and having worked with The World Health Organisation as a women health specialist, Carol feels that India provides a vast scope for career in demographics and allied fields.

What prompted you to choose rural India for your research?

I first visited India as a tourist in 1971 at the age of 27. Coming from a sparsely populated country like Canada, India’s large population intrigued me. When I returned to Canada I enrolled in a Masters of Sociology programme at the University of Western Ontario to study demography. My interest was in rural areas in developing countries where population was growing the fastest. After completing my degree, I received a scholarship from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute to study in India, an excellent choice for my research because it had both a rapidly expanding population and the oldest family planning programme in the world.

What are the distinct findings of your research?

My book reports on a study of Gove village spanning 33 years, 1975-2008. Economic development, family planning, health and education programmes had made great strides in the village over the study period. By 2008, a norm was established in the village that girls should be educated, at least till SSC, before marrying. But the village still had a long way to go to attain gender equality. Sex preference for males was still prevalent; for every girl aged 6 years or less, there were 1.4 boys. An important conclusion of the book is that policies aimed to increase female education need to be complemented by concrete actions to promote meaningful employment for rural women.

What are the career avenues for Indian students in the field of demographics, Epidemiology and Community Medicine?

The possibilities of a rewarding career are strong and wide-ranging. In demography, the study of population, one can do research, analyse data from various sources such as the census or large national surveys, or one can work at policy or programme levels to develop and implement actions to improve population dynamics. For example, India is now trying to find ways to increase the length of the gap between generations by encouraging later marriage and child-bearing. Demographers are essential to assist in devising and testing strategies to bring this about.

In the areas of epidemiology and community medicine, career paths include everything from basic statistical analysis to public health programme delivery. Professionals are always needed because health problems will always be with us, and it is always necessary to observe disease patterns and predict trends, develop interventions and implement them at the community level. Professionals are required from a range of backgrounds, including medicine, other public health fields, social sciences and economics. They require a good understanding of ethics, statistics, data analysis and evaluation.

Your advice to students willing to work in the areas of women empowerment or public health.

Working in the field of women’s empowerment is both rewarding and challenging. Often gender studies are viewed as “soft science” and disparaged by those involved in the “hard sciences”, such as medicine. I have found that this is a result more of lack of understanding than of a true mismatch between disciplines.

In order to avoid the “ghettoization” of women’s issues one should seek areas of common ground. For example, I worked with the World Health Organisation, mainly in the area of research, for 17 years. In fact, I was the first person to introduce the concept of “gender” into the organisation. Many of my colleagues questioned the need to examine women’s health issues separately, arguing that the male model was adequate for both sexes. However, it took very little effort to find examples from existing research of differential impacts of health and illness on men and women.

In whatever work we do, whether in women’s empowerment or public health, it is important to work hand in hand with those we are trying to help. Women’s empowerment is about women, and one needs to work closely with them, listening to their expressed needs and priorities. Similarly, in the area of public health, I would advise working closely with those we want to serve, especially those at the grass roots level and to work steadfastly toward identified goals and milestones. Fast fixes, such as vertical programmes aimed at a single disease or intervention, usually don’t work in the long term. It is important to stay centred and not be carried away by fads or opportunistic motives.