Even today as we approach the twenty-first century, many rural Asians continue to live and die well beyond the pale of rudimentary health services, not to mention modern medical technology. India’s rural women are doubly vexed, for they are handicapped both by poverty and physical isolation as well as by their subordinate position as females in the social order. Dr. BANOO COYAJI has confronted this cruel state of affairs in Maharashtra State, where the modern city of Pune lies adjacent to a parched and impoverished hinterland.
Born into a well-to-do Parsi family, BANOO COYAJI was educated in Bombay and earned an MD degree in Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1944 she embarked upon her medical career at Pune’s King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM), a privately funded maternity hospital of some forty beds. As its director and chief medical officer, COYAJI guided KEM’s growth into a full-service hospital of some 550 beds and as a center for teaching and medical research.
Discerning the gap between medical services available to Pune’s urbanites and those in rural areas, COYAJI launched the Vadu Rural Health Project in 1977. In cooperation with the state government of Maharashtra, she trained a team of community health guides to bring critical public health education and first aid to villagers. Working primarily through women’s groups, COYAJI’s community workers bore basic lessons in sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition to fellow villagers and promoted acceptance of family planning. They referred people at risk to KEM’s doctor-staffed rural medical center in Vadu or to the main hospital in Pune. At periodic “camps,” KEM doctors immunized the children and treated ear, nose and throat ailments, and cataracts. Meanwhile, researchers at KEM probed rural health issues scientifically and monitored the dramatic decline in infant mortality and other positive trends in the area.
Surveying the strengths and weaknesses of her program in the mid-1980s, COYAJI noted that the needs of pre-adolescent and adolescent girls were almost wholly neglected. Burdened by poverty and their low status as females, these young women entered upon their adult roles as mothers and breadwinners with little formal schooling and virtually no instruction in vital matters of family life. Through the Young Women’s Health and Development Project, inaugurated in 1988, she introduced community welfare workers to eleven villages. Their task is to instruct girls and young women in new livelihood skills such as sewing and embroidery and in other practical arts. They also provide essential information about women’s health and family life and encourage frank discussions about caste and gender relations. Songs, games, and holiday festivities complement the formal classes. Through their ongoing exposure to the program, young women are gaining confidence to pursue educations and to resist unwanted early marriages. On their own initiative, several of them now lead village cleanliness and tree planting campaigns and teach their mothers to read.
Tireless at seventy-five, COYAJI carries on her busy life overseeing the work of KEM and several other projects. She eagerly works with government, believing that private organizations must do so in order to spread the benefits of successful micro-projects to citizens at large. COYAJI’s thoughts today are often focused on India’s women. Their enlightenment, she believes, is the key to a more humane society for India, a “better tomorrow” in which women “walk shoulder to shoulder with men, matching their stride.”
In electing BANOO COYAJI to receive the 1993 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her mobilizing the resources of a modern urban hospital to bring better health and brighter hopes to Maharashtra’s rural women and their families.
Thank you very much for electing me as the 1993 Ramon Magsaysay awardee for public service.
I feel particularly privileged not only because it is such a prestigious award but mainly because it has been established in honor of your great president, the late Mr. Ramon Magsaysay, who rendered such distinguished service to the people of the Philippines when they needed it most. I bow my head in homage to him on this, his birthday anniversary. “He worked to build a nation—a world—in which all people were free and lived in honor and peace one with another. The world is richer and better because Ramon Magsaysay lived. His spirit will continue to be an inspiration.”
I must confess that I have not done any great public service nor any biomedical research, outstanding or otherwise. I have only done what I thought was necessary for the underserved and underprivileged people living in the slums of Pune City and in the three hundred villages of Pune District in rural Maharashtra.
I humbly accept this award in the name of KEM Hospital-Pune, the KEM Hospital Research Centre, its very supportive Council of Management, and my colleagues—the heads of departments; the consultants; the residents; the nursing, administrative, technical, and other staff, whose unstinted loyalty, support and hard work has made this day possible.
I have been fortunate in having helping hands throughout my life. I am grateful to them all. First of all, my late parents Bapaimai and Pestonji Kapadia, who endowed me with their genes and provided the environment for me to flourish, and my late husband Jehangir for his lifetime support. I was educated in the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Pune. I am grateful to the nuns and priests who inculcated in me real values that have stood me in good stead all my life. I am grateful to the professors of Grant Medical College and my mentors who guided and encouraged me throughout my life.
I thank the trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and all others who have extended their courtesy, kindness, and warm hospitality from the moment I landed in Manila.
I thank you all once again for the honor you have done me—a humble community health worker. I accept it on behalf of the women of India. I rededicate the few years left of my life to the service of underprivileged, dispossessed men, women, and children, and particularly the most vulnerable of them in our society—women and girls—to their health and development in the sacred memory of your great president Ramon Magsaysay.