I have seen the benefits of aid to India

As you walk through Delhi’s slums, you realise the enormous scale of the problems India faces.

I’ve just returned from visiting Save the Children programmes in India, where I saw that all eyes were fixed on London for the Olympics. When asked in a Delhi slum if the Queen and James Bond really had parachuted into the opening ceremony, I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to tell the children that they hadn’t , but it showed how the Games have shone a spotlight on the UK. As the Olympics close next week, David Cameron will host a summit of world leaders to try and address hunger and malnutrition. The convergence of global attention on London provides an opportunity to galvanise political commitment to tackle these critical issues, which each year mean that 2.6 million children die before their fifth birthday.

Having visited India before, I knew it was a place of enormous contrasts; death is part of life and life can be desperately cheap. I was, however, still shocked to learn that in India nearly 5,000 children die every day.  Can you imagine the outrage if 5,000 children died every day in a war? A major cause of these deaths is malnutrition, which weakens children so their bodies can’t withstand routine illnesses like diarrhoea and pneumonia.  Almost half of India’s children that do survive are stunted, meaning their bodies and brains don’t develop properly due to lack of nutrition.

In Delhi, I visited the Okhla slum, home to some 100,000 of the most marginalised people. Many of the slum dwellers are migrants from rural India who, ironically, came to Delhi in search of a better life. Okhla is like much of Delhi; chaotic and vibrant, the skyline breached by hotels, factories and businesses. It is as you delve deeper in to the winding, rubbish strewn streets that you realise the sheer size of the slum. It was in Okhla that I met Kusum and her baby daughter, Ritu.

Ritu was born nine months ago, the sixth of Kusum’s children. Her eldest child is 16 years old, born shortly after Kusum’s marriage at the age of 15.  Ritu was severely underweight at birth, weighing just three and a half pounds. At nine months, she is about the size of my own four month old daughter.  For Kusum, life is a daily battle to find enough food to feed her six children, with wheat the staple food in the slums and vegetables incredibly difficult to afford.  Kusum told me that Save the Children’s mobile health unit allows her to seek regular medical advice and treatment, without which she’s not sure what would happen to Ritu. She may not be sure but I’m certain what would happen to her.

The mobile health unit is a free service provided to the community for women and children. The unit I visited was well equipped with medical stocks, and I watched professional and dedicated doctors and staff dispensing diagnosis and treatment for a broad range of ailments and infections.  Importantly, the doctors also provide education to the local community about health, hygiene and sanitation, in order to reduce the reoccurrence of preventable diseases.  On the day I visited, and despite monsoon rains, the mobile health unit treated over 200 patients from Okhla alone. 

There are those who question British aid to India. At a time when India is investing in a space programme and our economy is in recession, with severe cuts being made to vital local services in our communities, that is understandable. But seeing the benefit that the poorest gain from lifesaving interventions such as this, justifies Save the Children’s investment in India and the Department for International Development’s largely well-targeted aid programme.  And as you walk through Delhi’s slums, with children scavenging piles of rubbish in search of food to eat or scraps to sell, you realise the enormous scale of the problems India faces. 

The elephant in the room is the extent to which India, a brilliant and proud nation, can better ensure that it invests its own resources in the most effective way – given our historic links, a diplomatic minefield for the UK and a huge challenge for India. Fundamentally though, for the UK to behave as a responsible member of the international community, it is right to take action that saves lives every day.

The government is right to convene next week’s meeting of world leaders to address the crisis of malnutrition, which is responsible for 300 children’s deaths around the world every single hour.  But to turn the tide on this endemic problem, one summit will clearly not be enough.  Next year, as the UK hosts the G8, there is a real opportunity to further galvanise global action to address hunger.  And to truly demonstrate his commitment to tackling poverty, Cameron must now introduce the long-promised legislation committing 0.7% of national income to aid, and secure a brighter future for millions of children like Ritu.

Labour MP Dan Jarvis listens to slum dwellers in Delhi.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.