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The Producer's Story
Escaping the Trap
by Laura Pacheco

World in the Balance homepage

September 24, 2003—On the road to Agra

As on most mornings of a film shoot, we got up before dawn. I had been in New Delhi for several days, but our camera crew had just flown in the night before. While they took a day to acclimate to the time change (nine hours!), I needed to go on ahead with our translator to lock down the story for the next day's filming. We headed out from New Delhi on the road to Agra—a seemingly short 200-mile trip on the map, but anywhere from a four to nine-hour drive in reality.

To beat the traffic, we left hours before daybreak. But as the sun rose over the horizon, we found ourselves stuck in the worst traffic we'd seen so far. In the gray morning light, the scene was otherworldly: a sea of cars, trucks, camels, cows, elephants, bicycles, and mopeds all making their way through clouds of exhaust fumes and dust. A riot of children pressed themselves against our windows and doors asking for anything we might spare. Not an hour went by that we didn't see a gaunt beggar leading a bear or monkey in chains and expecting a few rupees for the spectacle.

If anywhere speaks to the chaos wrought by a population explosion, the road to Agra says it all. But the message is confusing and overwhelming. Our challenge in making this program was to communicate the complexities of the population problem, to separate out the various issues that contribute to the whole. We also were searching for stories that would give a human face to the abstractions and statistics.

Facts of life

In the next 50 years, India will surpass China as the world's most-populated nation, and almost all of that growth will take place in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. If this state were a country, it would be the fifth most-populated in the world. Agra is the capital, and seemed a likely place for us to find our story, but we had already visited the city three times without luck. Part of the difficulty was that we wanted to focus attention on people not given to speaking out, a group that sits at the nexus of the unbridled birthrate here: poor women. [To learn more about women's reproductive rights in India, see the interview with Geeta Rao Gupta.]

Unlike women in industrialized countries, those living in underdeveloped regions of the world suffer from historical and cultural forces that drive overpopulation. A lack of rights and access to modern health services dooms many girls to a life as "trapped" women. We were on our latest journey to Agra because we had located one such woman, a 33-year-old named Gooday, and we needed to confirm that she would be willing, and allowed, to appear on camera.

Gooday had recently given birth to her eighth child and almost died during a long and complicated labor. She was, in many ways, a prisoner to her husband and his family—her chief function: to provide sons. One of our contacts from a local NGO had arranged our meeting. I hoped she would have the courage to talk with us.

Much to my relief, the brief meeting with Gooday's family went well, and we made plans to return the next day.

September 25, 2003—In the slums of Agra

Up before dawn, again. I had driven back to New Delhi during the night and was bleary-eyed. But getting seven people, 18 bags of gear, and many gallons of drinking water out the door by 4 a.m. had become routine on this film shoot. The unpredictability of India made it only slightly more difficult. That morning, our driver didn't feel well and stopped for tea every 30 minutes. It took us six and a half hours to get to Agra.

Once out of our vans, we walked carefully, every other step an exercise in avoiding the mixture of mud and feces that floods the streets of Agra's slums. Ned Johnston, our cameraman, was ahead of us. Behind me trailed more than 100 children and teenagers, boys mostly, as girls and grandmothers looked on from doorsteps. Men gazed at us as we passed, uncertain what to think of the Americans with all their electronic stuff. Stray dogs wandered through the street. We wound our way through the maze of makeshift houses looking for the home I had visited the day before.

Gooday had her family's permission to speak with us about her situation, and it promised to be a heart-wrenching tale. Just a month before, she had nearly died in childbirth. After three days of obstructed labor, her midwife finally gave up on her, unable to help. At the last moment, Gooday's mother-in-law sought help from the local NGO health care worker and promised to find the money to pay for an emergency hospital stay for her daughter-in-law. Gooday was lucky. The lives of many women in India are not valued enough to justify the costs of delivering a baby in a hospital, even when the mother or child is in trouble.

Gooday survived and so did her child—her eighth. Afterwards, she was begging to get sterilized. But since she had given birth to a girl, her husband and mother-in-law wanted her to have a second son. For Gooday, it would mean risking her life on a ninth pregnancy. But who would decide? Local NGOs in Uttar Pradesh call husbands and mothers-in-law the "gatekeepers" of a woman's choices.

Crowd control

While Gooday's situation was typical of many poor women in India, her courage to talk about it was not. But unless we could keep the noise down from a growing crowd, and stop groups of giggling boys from throwing pebbles at us to gain our attention, brave Gooday would never see the camera, and we would never get the shots we needed to explain exactly why population is growing in places like India.

We couldn't keep the kids quiet, of course. Our arrival was surely one of the biggest events in some time. Few from so far away venture into this part of Agra, and everyone wanted to be part of the excitement. We needed to get clean audio for Gooday's interview, and we weren't having much luck.

In the end, we paid local boys to keep the children away from the camera, and I sat in a separate area with the crowd trying to keep their attention in various ways. (The older women tried to find me a husband amongst their many sons, young girls painted my fingernails, teenage boys tried to teach me to speak proper Hindi—and we all smiled a lot.) I hoped the distraction was giving Ned, producer Sarah Holt, and the rest of our crew the time they needed to talk with Gooday.

We got the interview, but afterwards we questioned how free Gooday truly had been to talk. She admitted that she didn't want to have any more children. But her mother-in-law and husband hardly seemed impressed that she had already given birth to eight children, and they thought nothing of pressing Gooday for more.

Three of Gooday's children had died before the age of five, not uncommon in a region where ten percent of children do not live beyond their fifth year. For all of her childbearing, Gooday had just one living son, and with death rates so high, her family feared one son wasn't enough. With no social security system in India, a son is considered the only guarantee of being cared for in old age. It seemed Gooday's choices did not matter. Unfortunately, this was exactly the kind of story we had hoped to find.

Changing minds

Thank goodness for Ravi. Dr. Ravi Anand is with CEDPA (Center for Development and Population Activities), the organization that helped set up our meeting with Gooday, and the kind of group we also wanted to profile in our film. Ravi and others throughout India are dedicated to bringing health services and choices to women like Gooday. In front of the camera, Ravi counseled Gooday and her relatives on alternative choices in family planning, including vaccinating their children to help guarantee their survival, spacing births, and various forms of family-planning methods. Ravi tried to convince Gooday's mother-in-law and husband that Gooday should also play a part in the decision.

That Ravi and organizations like hers are even talking with women like Gooday—conducting free health clinics in remote villages and counseling men, women, and mothers-in-law on family planning—is revolutionary. Gooday might try for a ninth child, another son, but that she is free to think and even say that she doesn't want to have another baby is how change always begins—in the minds, ideas, and attitudes of people.

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Laura Pacheco (in red) with a group of women and children in Agra, India during NOVA's film shoot there.


Like many women in India, Gooday was still in her teens when she married. By the age of 33, she had given birth eight times.


Gooday's mother-in-law believes that more grandsons will ensure the long-term well-being of her family.


While he may have greater power than his wife within the family, Gooday's husband also is trapped in a world of poverty.


Gooday's only living son is still vulnerable to the many childhood diseases that plague India's poorer regions.

Anand counsels family

Dr. Ravi Anand works both one family at a time and on a national level to improve family planning in India.

World in the Balance

Back to the World in the Balance homepage for more articles, interviews, interactives, and slide shows.

Laura Pacheco served as researcher and associate producer of "World in the Balance." In her previous documentary work, Pacheco has covered many subjects in the developing world, including the return of Mayan refugees in Guatemala and the health care system in Ecuador.

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