Sukti Dhital and Lynsey Addario Document The Big Impact That Comes With Local Advocacy

When award-winning photojournalist, Lynsey Addario, travelled to India to visit our grantees at Nazdeek, she witnessed the power of advocacy to save mothers’ lives.

*Photo by Lynsey Addario

Our grant to Nazdeek, helps train activists to document maternal health rights violations & secure legal judgments that mandate better healthcare for mothers. Approximately 50,000 women die annually from pregnancy and childbirth related conditions in India, despite laws that mandate free care for all pregnant and lactating women. Indian women, particularly those who live in poverty are routinely refused care at health facilities, or receive substandard care and cruel treatment from health workers. In addition, they’re often denied health benefits like nutritional supplementation that’s been legally allocated to them. Sukti Dhital, Nazdeek’s founder and Executive Director, explains that’s often due to institutional and government corruption and misinformation regarding what services women are legally entitled to.

We spoke with Dhital about her visit with Addario to the tea gardens and the impact she’s witnessed since receiving an EMC grant in August 2014.

EMC: You and Lynsey visited a specific group of women who live and work in tea gardens. Can you describe your work with these women?

Sukti: We’ve been training 30 women who work and live in a tea garden (farms where tea is grown and thousands of people work in poverty conditions) in Asaam who are housewives, tea garden workers and farmers. We call them paralegals and over the past year they’ve come to understand their basic maternal health and human rights entitlements and all different facets of using the legal system.

EMC: What do they do with that training?

Sukti: Once they know their rights, they conduct surveys in their communities, asking questions like:

  • Did you have to pay for services at the hospital?
  • When you called the ambulance, did it come?
  • When you went to your birthing facility, was there a doctor?

They document the gaps between the services women are entitled to and what they actually receive. They have mobile phones and use a coding system that relates to the particular type of violations they discover. That code gets transmitted to a central phone that one of our partners has. We evaluate the codes and call them back and often discover there’s more than one violation. They might code there was no ambulance and when we call back, we find out there was also a payment issue or maybe there’s no doctor. We document all the information and post it on a public website.

EMC: What kinds of violations did you discover with


Sukti: In one block (districts are divided into blocks), pregnant and lactating women hadn’t received the nutritional benefits like rice, lentils and supplements for more than six months. Our volunteers filed complaints then met with local nutrition officials. It was during that visit that officials announced they were doing food disbursements in those areas the next day.

EMC: I don’t imagine that was a coincidence.

Sukti: Probably not. We went to one of the nutrition centers, which serve about 60 beneficiaries to make sure the food actually reached the women who were supposed to receive it. Then we followed up with Otila, one of our activists, who is a strong, single, older woman who raised two children on her own. She introduced us to one of the young women in her community who’d been going without food.

EMC: Was she a mother?

Sukti: Yes. This young mother had previously had a baby boy who died of malnutrition. At the time of our visit, her second baby, a girl, was about nine months old and weighed about six pounds. We went with her to one of the nutrition centers and asked the administrator why she wasn’t getting the nutritional benefits she was entitled to. We were told that it was because no food had been disbursed to her center. While we were there, however, she received a call saying a disbursement would happen the next day. We documented that to make sure the rations actually got to the women who needed it. Often times, food supplies get distributed from the state to the district level but then get stuck — lost to corruption or sold in the private market. When we file a complaint, officials get scared. They realize someone is watching and that catalyzes them into action. These mothers didn’t receive any food support for months until we filed a complaint and then…it shows up.

EMC: What happened to the young mother?

Sukti: We went with her to the distribution center to make sure she got her rice and lentils and we got to see this baby eat for the first time. She was so hungry she gobbled it up. The mother also ate. It was heartbreaking but powerful. As a result of that direct advocacy, at least 50 families from that center and at least 200 people in that block received their distribution.

It’s rewarding to see such a big impact develop in these small kinds of ways. Sometimes it’s not the high court cases, but local advocacy that delivers the most direct impact. Before this work, women and their children were not getting access to essential food rations they’re entitled to. Now they do, and are healthier for it.”

Learn more about the progress of Nazdeek.

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