Clemente researched public health in Indian slums

Leah Clemente confirmed her desire to work in public health by spending five months in Pune, India in late 2007 as part of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s India Studies Program. Her adventure included a research project in the Pune slums with Uplift, a grassroots organization focused on preventative health care and the eradication of malnutrition.

Leah Clemente
Leah Clemente shares her first rickshaw ride

Clemente’s research primarily involved interviews of Uplift staff and daily observations of their work with local women. Clemente, who is majoring in sociology with a women’s studies minor, says she immediately began to understand that solutions to malnutrition and disease are complex and multi-faceted.

“Interestingly enough, one of the main causes of infant malnutrition is not a lack of food, but a lack of confidence or trust existing between mother and child,” Clemente says. “For instance, one woman openly admitted that because of her doubt as a parent she often cast her child to the side, leaving it screaming and crying for food and water.”

Clemente came to see that malnutrition is not only connected to poverty, but also to gender inequality and the caste system.

“I realized that no solution can be simple; everything goes deeper than just feeding poor children or providing medical care,” she says. “To solve the particular problems I looked at in India, one would need to deconstruct the entire society, eliminating the caste system.”

Clemente’s semester included courses in sociology, politics, environmental studies, and classical Indian singing. She also received intensive training in the local language, Marathi.  Though initially frustrated by her host family’s insistence that she speak only in Marathi, the experience proved invaluable.

“Learning Marathi was critical as it allowed us to travel around easier and gave us a certain level of respect,” she says. “Especially in my research, speaking the local language allowed me to communicate with people on an entirely different level. Even something as simple as saying “hello” in Marathi gave me an extra step in my research.”

Clemente is planning to pursue a post-graduate degree at the Unversity of California, Berkeley School of Public Health beginning in 2010.  Her goal is to focus on lesser-developed countries, and in the meantime she keeps in contact with the staff of Uplift and is excited by their efforts to begin working more with men.

“India transformed my college career,” Clements says. “It was a trip I will never forget, and India will be a place I visit many times to come.”