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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 23, 2001

Woman to woman Woman to woman (March 23, 2001)

A new documentary by Palo Altan Dorothy Fadiman profiles a revolutionary social program in rural India

by Robyn Israel

Over 1 billion people--one-sixth of the global population--live in India. Within 40 years, that number could double, surpassing China as the most populous country in the world.

Population growth and poverty are so acute in certain areas of India that even one more child will push families over the brink financially and emotionally.

Seeking to control the country's dire population problem, a group called Janani (mother in Hindi) was formed in India five years ago, and is dedicated to providing family planning and counseling services to the country's rural women.

The organization forms the basis of a new documentary by Menlo Park filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman. Entitled "Woman by Woman: New Hope for the Villages of India," the film profiles Janani and three women, in particular, who are serving their communities as family-planning counselors.

The film, made with the assistance of KQED, will screen on Thursday at Spangenberg Theater in Palo Alto. Benefiting the Association for India's Development, the event will include a panel discussion hosted by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, founder of Maitri, a Sunnyvale-based organization that counsels South Asian women who are victims of abuse in the United States. The discussion will be devoted to female-enpowering opportunities (see information below).

"Woman by Woman" takes place in Bihar, one of India's least developed states. Situated next to Nepal, Bihar's 100 million residents (10 percent of the country's population) have an average income of $150 per year. Ridden with poverty, Bihar's women must also contend with centuries-old gender discrimination. Wives are forced to stay home, and if they do leave, must be accompanied by an escort and are required to cover themselves. Many cannot even speak to men who are not their husbands or immediate relatives. Less than 25 percent can read, compared to more than half of men. And in this society that prizes men, female infanticide is a common occurrence.

"Boys are favored across the board," Fadiman says. "If a girl gets sick, she has to have a higher fever before she'll get medicine or medical care."

Before Janani was formed in 1996, health care in villages was administered strictly by men (although they aren't licensed physicians, men can dispense contraceptives). Janani had a brainstorm: why not bring in the wives of these rural medical practitioners and train them to work with women. Under the program, couples receive three days of training in Patna, Bihar's capital, and return to their villages to work as counselors. The program has so far succeeded in training 10,00 couples.

Janani's practitioners offer women a variety of family-planning choices, including condoms, birth control pills, intrauterine devices, tubal ligations and abortions. They also counsel women on a variety of female issues and disorders, including sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The organization has had tremendous success in its mission, reaching more than 1 million couples.

"It's a bridge across shark-infested waters," Fadiman says of Janani. "They create a safe way for the women to uncover themselves."

Based in Patna, Janani receives funding from India's government and many international organizations, including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (which also funded "Woman by Woman"). And in just five years, the organization has been successful in overcoming the challenges of communities who are religious, superstitious and wary of outside intervention (a lingering distrust persists from a sterilization program that existed in India in the mid-1970s).

Mindful of the region's history, Fadiman expected the village women to be reticent about talking to her. She discovered the opposite to be true.

"What surprised me was how present, articulate and intelligent they were. They think about all these things and they're trapped," Fadiman says.

One woman who made a significant impression on Fadiman was Sarita Singh, a twenty-something wife and mother who is working with her husband, Pawan, as a family-planning counselor. Theirs was an arranged marriage, but they are working together to serve their their community. In the process, Singh has become a respected role model for the women in her village.

"She's raising the awareness of her husband, of what it means to work as peers in a culture where women are to follow and serve men," Fadiman says. "And he's so proud of her."

A graduate of Stanford University, Fadiman has worked as an independent filmmaker since 1976 and runs Concentric Media, a production company based in Menlo Park. She received an Academy Award nomination (best documentary short subject) for "When Abortion was Illegal" (1993) and an Emmy Award for "From Danger to Dignity: The Fight for Safe Abortion" (1996). All of her films document the ways in which unique challenges have been met with creative solutions.

By August 1999, Fadiman was preparing to retire when she received a telephone call from Population Communications International. The New York-based organization, which creates soap operas and radio dramas with a family-planning theme in communities around the world, asked Fadiman to document Janani. Fadiman signed on to the project because she couldn't resist the chance to once again champion women's reproductive rights. The subject is an especially personal one, as Fadiman almost died from an illegal abortion in 1962.

Accompanied by cameraman Daniel Meyers and co-producer and editor Kristin Atwell, Fadiman spent a month filming in Bihar last March. She witnessed firsthand how Janani is empowering women, educating them and instilling in them confidence they never had before.

"The most profound thing I saw was what was happening to women who'd been living in virtual subjugation on so many levels, being given the courage, the skills and the tools to come out of their kitchens and do something," Fadiman says.

"Woman by Woman" will also screen April 5 in New York at an event hosted by the United Nations' NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Committee on Population and Development. Fadiman hopes the film will be translated into many languages and that it will influence other impoverished communities in which women have long been regarded as second-class citizens.

"Our hope for this film is that it will set an example for similar situations, particularly in rural poverty, particularly where there is an anti-female bias."

What: "Woman by Woman: New Hope for the Villages of India." Co-hosted by Concentric Media and Maitri, the event will benefit Association for India's Development. The film screening will be followed by a panel discussion hosted by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, founder of Maitri. Panelists will include Kavita Nandini Ramdas, president of Global Fund for Women; Richard Schlossberg III, president of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; Sonya Pelia, president of Maitri; and L.S. Aravinda, who coordinates efforts in the villages of India with Association for India's Development.

Where: Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road in Palo Alto

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Cost: Tickets are $15 general; $8 students and low-income individuals. Group discounts are available.

Info: Call (650) 321-6530 or visit 


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