The reason I have found myself living in Jakarta for the summer is to fulfill a grad school requirement where I complete some kind of eight-week internship in the field of maternal and child health. Because I’m into global public health and I can’t help but travel every chance I get, I sought to leave the U.S. for the summer. I was lucky enough to be connected with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) by an Indonesian peer. After considering a few placements in other countries, I decided on returning to Indonesia for two reasons. First, Indonesia is an exciting place for initiatives in my most favorite sector of maternal health – family planning. Second, it takes a while to learn about other cultures and language and my logic was this – had I ended up in say, Zambia, I would have spent my entire summer learning the ropes of the Zambian culture and health system. By the time I would have begun to understand an inkling of what the heck was going on and how things work, it would have been time for me to leave. With my past stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer here, contributing to work in Indonesia means I can dive right in.
One of the main lessons I’ve learned so far while working on a public health Master’s is that not a lot of people know what public health is or what it does. Put simply (albeit ambiguously), public health is everything that prevents bad health and everything that promotes good health for everyone. And it’s everywhere. Public health is the seat belt law in your state in the U.S. Public health is making condoms available to youth in Tanzania to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Public health is the mass immunization campaign that recently eradicated polio in India.
What public health isn’t, is medical care. If you are at a doctor’s office because you’re ill or you’re waiting in an urgent care unit because of an injury, you have stepped into the realm of medical care, not public health. Public health work is all about facilitating safe and healthful living so that your risk for illness and injury is low.
My focus in public health while in Indonesia is family planning. Family planning encompasses anything that helps individuals and families decide if, when, and how often they reproduce. Family planning is important because it affects the health of mothers, which affects the health of children and families, which in turn influences the health of communities, regions, and the world. If a woman doesn’t want to get pregnant, family planning programs provide what that woman needs to prevent having a child. I love this work because it’s all about empowering people to control a very important feature of life (reproducing) so that they can pursue what is best for them. It’s estimated that family planning alone reduces maternal deaths by a third. That is powerful and a large part of what makes family planning so awesome. In Indonesia, for example, the average woman had more than five children during her lifetime in the early 70s. Today, she will have around two children. The decline is made possible by family planning services, mainly in the form of contraceptives.
While in the Peace Corps, my host mom was our village’s midwife. I saw how powerful and important her work was in our village. Women who knew they couldn’t afford to have any (more) children or simply didn’t want to would come to her to prevent another pregnancy. Family planning services empowered these women to support their children and husbands as healthy, thriving individuals. It’s a bit surreal to be back in Indonesia working on country-level initiatives delivering family planning services to those who need it, regardless of their income or education status when just a year ago I was witnessing the family planning services in my small Javanese village. For the summer, I will gladly endure the gridlock traffic and layered pollution in Jakarta to collaborate with a stellar UNFPA Indonesia staff on how to best provide reproductive health services.