Sarita Panday’s personal and professional journey from a childhood in a small village in Nepal to an academic career that has taken her across the globe to Australia, Europe, and now Stanford is a story that speaks to the power of education as a life-transforming and world-changing force. Sarita is our 2018-19 postdoctoral fellow in Asia health policy and her research focuses on improving maternal health service provision in Nepal.
The Asia Health Policy Postdoctoral Fellowship is offered annually by APARC’s Asia Health Policy Program (AHPP). On May 1, Sarita will present her research at a seminar cosponsored by AHPP and the Center for South Asia. We caught up with Sarita to learn about her work, the state of maternal health and education in Nepal, and what’s next for her career.
Q: Your research interests include health service delivery and human resources for global health, and your PhD project explored the role of female community health volunteers in maternal health service provision in Nepal. What is the state of maternal health in Nepal? How does it compare to other areas in South Asia?
While substantial progress in maternal health has been achieved over the last two decades, Nepal still has high rates of maternal deaths compared to its neighbouring countries. According to UN estimates, maternal mortality ratio (number of deaths due to pregnancy-related causes per 100,000 live births) is one of the highest in Nepal (258) compared to India (174), Bangladesh (176), Pakistan (176) or Sri Lanka (30). Maternal deaths in Nepal’s rural areas are three times likely to be higher than in urban areas. Therefore, my research focuses on improving maternal health status in rural area.
Q: Tell us about your current research: What questions/problems you're exploring? What are some of the findings your work has revealed?
As the 2018-19 Asia Health Policy Postdoctoral Fellow at APARC, I am currently working on publications based on my PhD, which focused on improving healthcare for marginalized women in rural Nepal. My next paper, forthcoming in PLOS One, explores the underuse of healthcare services among Nepal’s marginalized communities. In this paper, I analyze the factors that hinder use of healthcare by certain ethnic groups such as Dalits (the lowest group within the Hindu caste system), Madhesi (people living in the southern plains of Nepal, close to the border with India), Muslim, and Chepang and Tamang (indigenous groups in hill villages). These ethnic groups face barriers to health service use that include lack of knowledge, lack of trust in volunteers, traditional beliefs and healthcare practices, low decision-making power among women, and perceived indignities experienced when using health centers. Therefore, community health programs aimed to improve healthcare use among such populations should consider these specific contextual elements along with health system factors.
My next manuscript (in preparation) focuses on the importance of paying community health workers, which is also one of the key findings of my PhD. I found that women volunteers appeared to be highly dissatisfied by the lack of financial incentives for their services and wanted remuneration. This finding contradicts previous claims that reported community health volunteers were happy with their status. I have just finished a first draft of the manuscript and will soon send it for review.
Apart from my fellowship at Stanford, I am volunteering to form a team of interdisciplinary researchers to improve maternal and child health among marginalized communities in Nepal. I am doing this as part of my role as an honorary research fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, where I also earned a PhD in public health. I recently organized a workshop in the UK to leverage partnerships across universities and the local NGO PHASE Nepal. During the workshop, I shared my experience of using participatory approaches (such as participatory video methods and policy workshops) to connect communities with policymakers, and I plan to use similar participatory approaches in my future research. The workshop successfully generated support from colleagues and the local partner.
Q: Your personal and professional journey has taken you from growing up in rural Nepal to pursuing a doctorate in Britain and now a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford. How would you describe the situation of Nepal’s higher education system, and the demand for foreign education in the country? What are some of the lessons you have learned throughout your own years of international education?
Although Nepal has a long history of education, the current formal education system was formed only in 1951, after the establishment of democracy. In the short period since then, Nepal has made substantial progress in adult literacy rate (from 20.6 % in 1981 to 64.7 % in 2015), but the quality of the public education system remains questionable, with low opportunities for employment. There has been some improvement since the beginning of technical education as a formal sector in 1980: the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is responsible for education in Nepal and there are currently a total of nine constituent universities with 90 affiliated universities and 1012 campuses. However, the quality of education in Nepalese universities is often controversial due to their being a playground for major political parties. And despite the government’s promises to increase its spending on public education the education budget appears to be cut each year.
As for my own experience, I graduated with a BSc Nursing degree in Nepal without realizing that I wouldn’t get a placement within the public sector. The government hasn’t yet created a position for graduates like me, which forced me to seek a job in the private sector. While I managed to find a well-paying if strenuous job in remote Nepal, I saw many colleagues who struggled to find jobs that matched their qualifications. Some of them worked voluntarily or in low-paying positions. While the Nepalese government continues to produce graduate nurses there’s no system to retain them, despite a severe scarcity of human resources for health.
Q: What's next for your career? What issues are you going to focus on in your upcoming research project?
I have recently been appointed as a Global Challenge Fellow at the University of Sheffield to work on a two-year research project in Nepal. Starting this July, I will work with rural women in two Nepalese districts (Dhading and Sindhupalchok), conducting participatory co-designed research aimed to raise awareness and understanding of the social, cultural, economic, and political factors that hamper women’s access to healthcare services. I plan to use participatory approaches, such as participatory video methods and policy workshops, to connect communities with policymakers, and to partner with PHASE Nepal to improve utilization of healthcare among the country’s marginalized populations.
I’m excited to share my work with the Stanford community in an upcoming seminar on May 1, and hope to see many friends and colleagues there.