“Slowly But Surely”

Aparajita Gogoi and the Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA)

Aparajita Gogoi traces her early passion about women’s rights back to her mother, who entered the workforce at a time when women in India were discouraged from participating in the workplace. As leader of CEDPA India, Aparajita deals daily with a range of issues, from high rates of maternal death to forced marriages at very young ages. While the scope of these problems is daunting, Aparajita believes that in time her hard work can help to eliminate the need for jobs like hers. While progress has been made in Indian policies toward women, Aparajita plans to continue to work “to translate these policies into action on the ground.” Here, she speaks about the importance of connecting with other people for help, and of maintaining passion in one’s work as well as a life outside of it.

What is your role in CEDPA?

I have been with CEDPA for ten years. I joined as an adviser for advocacy and communications. After several promotions, I took over as country director for CEDPA India a year and a half ago. I used to work in the social sector relating to technology, but I really wanted to work on women’s issues. In the last ten years, I have worked on women’s reproductive health, adolescent girls and boys, advocacy for maternal health, and women and governance.

What were the challenges on these issues?

Coming to terms with the fact that 90% of the country did not care about these issues and that I felt so strongly about it when no one else gave a damn was the toughest part for me when I came to CEDPA. If you talk to the family or husband of a recently deceased woman, they give excuses, like it was God’s will. Reconciling my feelings with this reality was the toughest part.

How did you deal with that?

I started by convincing myself that this is the reality, and we started figuring out strategies to address it. For maternal health, we got vocal. We shamed India by telling them that India, one of the fastest growing countries, contributes one-fourth of global maternal deaths. These things happen because common citizens have no clue, because no one talks about these issues.

It’s multi-pronged because when you talk about any issue, you have to realize that there’s no silver bullet approach. You have to work at different levels. At the top level we work on politicians and influential people and try to build political will. At the community and family level, we need behavioral change, and we give families simple tools and information to address these problems. At the third level, you have to make sure that the solutions, such as hospitals, exist. Based on the dimension of the problem, we have specific strategies aimed at solving them.

When you are working with a team of people on a project, do you have anything that you do to inspire teamwork or to help them work together?

We are a catalyst and a facilitator. We cannot change the world, and we are not as big or powerful as government. For example, when we work with women in government at the local level, we try to bring women parliamentarians to talk to them to inspire them. I am so different from them because I have not lived the life of a woman in a village. I am passionate about the cause, but if we really want to inspire them we have to find local champions with whom they can identify.

What advice do you wish someone would have given you when you started?

Don’t think that you can step into a job and you can start changing the world immediately. That’s something I always tell young people who talk to me. I know you are passionate, but it is incremental. I feel every day that whatever we do is just not enough. That’s something that people that work in this sector really need to reconcile.

How do you reconcile that with your desire to continue the work?

I really get inspired when I work in the field. I may be having lunch with first ladies, but I make sure that I spend most of my time in the field. Secondly, meeting people that are working on the ground can be very inspiring.

How has your education helped you in the work that you do?

My PhD in International Politics gave me grounding in social, political, and economic systems and how policies are made. My journalism course and work in filmmaking taught me how to present my message.

Where do you turn when you hit an obstacle?

Every time we hit a roadblock, I think there has to be some way out. I talk to people. I have a huge network of people and colleagues, and I never shy away from picking up the phone and asking someone to advise us. Sometimes people are so bound by their own egos that they don’t seek help or advice.

When you have a plan, how do you make sure that it is executed in the way you intended?

At CEDPA we firmly believe that there is no cookie cutter approach. One size does not fit all. Most of the programs in the development sector fail because people conduct research in a context and say it worked here, so why won’t it work there without taking into account differences among contexts.

How do you keep thinking critically and growing?

Ironically, it’s more interesting and exciting to work in India because every global health problem can be found in India. I am not saying this with pride. In India, because of the size and contrasting societies, we are constantly facing challenges. I can never just say it is 5:30; I am done for the day, that issue is solved. It’s never like that.

When you have a plan, how do you make sure that it is executed in the way you intended?

At CEDPA we firmly believe that there is no cookie cutter approach. One size does not fit all. Most of the programs in the development sector fail because people conduct research in a context and say it worked here, so why won’t it work there without taking into account differences among contexts.

When you do go home, do you do something to separate yourself from the work?

I handled this much better two years ago before I bought myself a Blackberry and made the biggest mistake of my life [laughing]. Seriously, you can’t take these problems home with you. You will just be too depressed. All of us in this field, we all know and we make a conscious effort to do what you have to do but don’t live, sleep, eat, and drink with these problems.

Is there any particular advice that you would give to young people who want to change the world?

Young people today in India, they are so much taken up by the information boom. If I look at my generation and the next generation, I just feel, and maybe I am partial, I feel that the sense of social commitment that we had is becoming less in the new generation. Maybe it’s because of how the world has changed in the last fifteen or twenty years or how we brought up the world. I would at least like them to do something that (a) tells them about the problems that the world faces and (b) that everyone should be doing something about it.

How do you define leadership?

Very simple: share the credit and take the blame. I think good leaders are people who not only lead from the front but also lead from behind. And if you are leading a group of people you have to be always ready to take it if something goes wrong, that you are the first in the line of fire. And if it brings you good things then you have to share the credit because that’s what a leader is supposed to be.