`I’ll be back!’ –
Outgoing UNICEF Representative, Dr Sreelakshmi Guraraja chats with Linda Rutherford on her life, her work, her passions.
Guyana Chronicle
February 8, 2004

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`In all humility, I’d like to say that I brought my ……more than 20 years of UNICEF experience to support my work; to provide insights into what would be the right policies for children; and to…. ensure that the Rights of Children are fulfilled by starting to monitor it.’ – Former UNICEF Representative, Dr Sreelakshmi Guraraja

`What I’m going to miss most is the Wednesday and Thursday market; the fresh fruits; the vegetables; the papayas; the mangoes. I am also going to miss my favourite fruit vendors; the ones I used to buy from regularly. There were so many of them. And they used to give me all these little tips…..even on what I should do in my work.’ - Dr Sreelakshmi Guraraja

SHE didn’t take too kindly to being photographed next to a cactus plant.

It’s not that she doesn’t like the genus, she said, but she’d rather do it downstairs where there was a huge poster which had children in it.

office is about children,” she insisted with a passionate sweep of the hand before haring off, cameraman in her wake, to find that poster to which she referred.

This out of the way, she finally settled down to talk about her life; her work with children; her passions; and her imminent departure for New York to join her husband and to take up a new post, after spending close to three years here, first as Deputy Representative then Representative of the Guyana Office of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

It was almost the end of the day; a time when most people tend to unwind a bit; to ‘let down their hair’ so to speak.

Coffee?” she asked. “Or, would you prefer tea?”

Work with children
A psychologist by profession, Dr Sreelakshmi Guraraja first became interested in children while working in her native Bangalore, reputedly the fifth largest and most westernised of India’s cities. Her work as a clinical psychologist at one of the city’s leading hospitals not only brought her into close contact with children who were mentally challenged, but those that were epileptic, autistic and disabled as well.

She’d also done extensive research into the behavioural patterns of children, such as how they assimilate information and how they respond to situations based on moral judgment, for instance: How they learn numbers; how they learn to differentiate right from wrong; how they learn to take responsibility for ethical things that they do; what do they think about death; what do they know about God; why do they have to be good; who tells them to be good; why is it important; and so on.

Unfortunately,” she said, “when I moved away from the academic and working directly with children, I moved into public policy; like I worked with an institution known as the National Institute of Child Development (NICD) in New Delhi where I was involved in training people who were working with children. So I moved away from children; but my first love is children.”

Why children, we asked.

And she said:

Maybe because I’m a mother myself. I have two children and now I am also a grandmother….in another five or six months.” It may also have to do with her being an only child and the fond memories she still has of growing up in ‘in a huge, extended family’.

My whole childhood,” she said, “was filled, between going to school and other activities, with festivals; and family occasions; people just walking into your home; I mean, we always had people over for dinner. I think it’s this whole question of looking at the networks which is also evident in the Caribbean, which is nice. You talk about your aunts…your uncles…your grandmother…the whole thing about family kinship and that kind of thing, all of which were the way in which your values and the things you held dear were transmitted through.”

The UN connection and Guyana
It was while she was at ‘the Institute’, she said, that she learnt of an opening at UNICEF for someone with her expertise.
At that time, UNICEF in India was expanding and looking for Indian staff who could work to promote integrated child development; who had the academic background and could work with the government.”

She applied and was successful. That was in 1982. She spent a little over 10 years there, working first in the sub-office, then in the main office. She was transferred in late 1992 to New York where she would spend another eight years before coming here in May 2001.

She wanted to come here; there was no question about it, she said. She had heard too much about Guyana not to - from colleagues who had worked here previously; reading Naipaul; and the little conversations she had had from time to time with then Commonwealth Secretary-General, Guyanese-born Sir Shridath Ramphal, whenever he happened to be in Delhi for a meeting.

And, don’t forget,” she said, “I come from a cricketing country. And so I have to know the West Indies.” Come to think of it, she said, she’s still not sure whether she knew of the capital as Georgetown or Bourda.

Again, she said, working at ‘Headquarters’ in New York also helped fan the flame, as it brought her even closer not only to Guyana but the rest of the Caribbean. She still remembers the thrill it gave her to write inviting Justice Desiree Bernard to participate in one of the sessions UNICEF was having at the historic ‘Beijing Summit’ on the rights of girls and women.

And then you follow what’s happening in the Caribbean. And, don’t forget, English speaking; I come from a Commonwealth background. So, there were certain things that I knew were an advantage……such as the way we are organised in governance; like you have a municipality and local government….is what I was familiar with in India. Then there is the system of education; and the Laws. So when the opportunity was provided to me, I jumped to it.”

Asked whether, based on what she had heard, Guyana did, in fact, measure up to her expectations upon arrival, she said in many ways….except perhaps for the size of the population.

You have to bear with me,” she said, “coming from a country with a population of one billion. But I immediately realised that the problems are the same; in magnitude they differ; but you still have the same kind of problems. Children not going to school; children going to school. Children who cannot be reached with health services because of distance, and so on.”

Here, however, the challenges were found to be even more difficult, given the complexity of getting into some of the far-flung areas like Region Seven, a community with some 7,000 – 8,000 residents. “How do we make sure that we take the services there? Then the whole question of planning; the challenges are indeed different,” she noted.

The other matter she’d also needed to look into was the UNICEF office itself, in terms of how best to organise themselves so as to be able to respond to the many challenges ahead. The third was resources: How to mobilise more resources for Guyana? On which latter score, she said, they have had immeasurable success.

We’ve been successful to get funding from UNICEF Headquarters [and] from other donors, and I’m sure that that will continue because we have been able to demonstrate that we can absorb, and can utilise effectively, funds over and above what was assigned to us,” Dr Gururaja said.

Come to think of it, she’d like to think that her entire tenure was a huge success, in that there have been more ups than there were downs.

In all humility,” she said, “I’d like to say that I brought my ……more than 20 years of UNICEF experience to support my work; to provide insights into what would be the right policies for children; and to…. ensure that the Rights of Children are fulfilled by starting to monitor it.”

Work with HIV/AIDS
She gave as an example of the many success stories the local office has had since she took over its helm the heightened awareness and emphasis now evidenced with regard to HIV/AIDS, a process that did not just involve UNICEF alone, but the Minister of Health and his Ministry as well among other agencies.

We were all able to work together to make sure that we provided, as donor agencies, the best support and response to the needs of HIV/AIDS,” she said.

Asked what the situation was like with regard to HIV/AIDS when she arrived, Dr Gururaja said: “Let me say that in 2001, there was not that much of a recognition of how the epidemic was affecting, or would affect. But clearly since then…there has been a broader acceptance; and awareness; and recognition. We know much more now… we did not know enough…of where the disease is going to make an impact…and what...actions we can take to trap it. Like, for example, by opening up testing, or encouraging pregnant women to go for voluntary counselling and testing, and knowing their HIV status; and if they were positive, to take action to join the programme of Prevention to Mother to Child so that you can have an option.”

As to how this particular mother-to-child-prevention programme was coming along, her response was:

This is where I think Guyana has positive answers,” in that data coming from the six centres (four in Region Four and two in Region Six) started back in November 2001 under the auspices of the Ministry of Health through its Maternal and Child Health Programme, are beginning to show signs of changing attitudes.

When we made the evaluation…every month we would monitor the number of women who volunteered for testing …. we found that more and more women wanted to know their status so that they can prevent being the transmitter. So I am encouraged by that,” she said.

And, with more monies now at their disposal, up from an initial US$7M to US$33M by 2005, thanks to a significant increase in funding from UNAIDS and USAID and funds coming to them from the ‘Bush Initiative’, they can now move the programme to Region Three, which they already have, and possibly to Regions Two and Ten.

So, it did take us two years to put things in place; we learnt several lessons; there are still some gaps; but we know what to do with those gaps. And that’s where the answer to everything lies; that’s where it makes it good,” Dr Gururaja said.

They are now in the process of assessing the situation in the country so as to use the information to prepare a National Plan of Action. She reasons that with a National Plan Of Action, which fits in with the schedule of a National Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS, then we will be on surer ground of addressing the situation.

Favourite pastimes
Turning her attention to less weighty matters, she spoke at length about her penchant for reading. As she puts it: “The whole question of curiosity; of wanting to learn about the world through reading,” a trait she strongly believes she has passed on to her son.

I wasn’t of the TV generation ….so I still try to hold on to that; I still have that penchant for reading and wanting to know a bit more. Even here in Guyana I have friends with whom I exchange books.

I used to like to read a lot of thrillers. Then it was women authors; with so many women authors around now …there was a whole period when I was just reading books by women…..among them several young Indian women who can write. It was so easy to identify yourself; to see yourself through those books.

Now I tell myself that I need to look for something different…so it’s now books on travel; travelogues. I’ve never gotten into autobiographies; I’ve never liked them much …. partly because you’re not able to see yourself. When you go with a story situated in a certain country, you learn about that country; it makes reading that much easier and interesting. It’s always nice when you’re travelling to Mexico, for instance, and you just read a book on Mexico….everything comes back.

I actually try to do that when I’m travelling…like when I went to Mexico and had just read a book called: ‘Like Water; Like Chocolate’. Then when I went to Vietnam, I had just read a book called: ‘Indochine’.”

Interestingly enough, she said, she’s now up two countries on her husband, whose work, like hers, also takes him to many countries. At the last count, she said, she had been to a total of 73 countries to his 71. “It’s one of the privileges of working with UNICEF and the UN,” she said.

She is hoping to write some day. “I don’t know,” she said. “That may be something I’ll do in 2005,” which is when she is due to retire.

Retirement plans
Though she’s yet to decide exactly what it is she is going to do when the time comes, the one things she knows for certain, she says, is that she will be going back home to Bangalore, and that she will be working with children.

Working with young children,” she said, “and watching them learn….there is a pattern to how children learn. And, providing that learning in Man, which is also what we are trying to do at UNICEF; providing an environment to stimulate in a child ….to think……it doesn’t make a difference …you don’t have to be rich, or you don’t have to be poor for that…to talk to a child; to stimulate a child; to show a child a flower and tell him that this is a flower; that it has a different colour from a leaf.

If we don’t stimulate a child, it’s a different kind of poverty. Along with the food that a child needs, stimulation is also as important. The development of the brain is in the first five years of life; the fastest developed …and this is where we need the best nutrition; the child needs to be healthy; the child also needs good parenting.

I’m not too sure now, but this I think will be one area that I myself am personally committed to….and will try to work in that direction.”

Asked how she feels about leaving after spending so long here, Dr Gururaja said:

It is difficult to say goodbye; because I’m leaving a whole host of friends. I’ve established working relationships; social relationships; even relationships outside of work. As I’ve said, I was privileged to have been welcomed by Guyanese society and my friends…and I am also pleased that I was able to work with government; with the NGOs; with organisations and individuals who are important to bring about change for children.

But there is no right time; there is no wrong time; it’s important for me to go back now. Besides, change is always good…..at the organisational level [and] at the personal level too. And I do need to go for family reasons. And also, to work on something different; maybe child labour. I’m not too sure yet what I’ll be working on … [but it certainly will have to do with] the whole thing of child protection; exploitation; abuse; and violence. These are child protection issues where it is so difficult, it’s a challenge; a big challenge.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to learn and also contribute to looking at issues in that area, which is going to be at all levels….community; family; policy; and programme. There’s a lot that’s happening at UNICEF on this, but globally, it is a challenge to us. I’m glad that I’m going to be working on that; because it’s a totally different area of work and my experience from Guyana – two and a half years; the actual interchange; looking at the issues….the different regions…. and then all the different kinds of people one engaged, and the commonalities and the differences.

So I look at it as an interesting experience.”

Things she’ll miss
One of the things that struck her on arrival, she says, was the cultural differences; something she found rather interesting and will definitely miss.

Take music, for example,” she said. “The reggae; the liveliness of it all. It’s a warmer kind of environment; everybody knows you; you know people. It’s easy to get to know people; you interact with people on a more frequent basis. Interaction is beyond that of business or work; it also extends to social interaction because it is a small group.”

Another was learning about the diaspora. “Though I was in New York…..OK! You do have a sizeable portion of Indian people in New York. …I’m talking about knowing about the Indo-Guyanese and how are they different; how are they different; how are they the same; their values. It was very interesting to attend weddings and those kinds of things.

And then I must say…the one thing I will miss most, is seeing all the old Hindi movies; the old classics with Mohammed Rafi; the old memories you call them. And I must tell you also; the different kinds of music; the different kinds of culture. I think I’ll miss that; the liveliness.

Though of course, there was a down-side; living alone ….times when one couldn’t go out; times you felt constrained. But then, that’s when you had the TV; and I had my own reading. And then, there was work! There were days when, being a small office, we had people who were transferred and therefore there were gaps in the staff…so it meant coming in on weekends. And the work; I must say, the work was interesting and challenging; but I love my work; and I think I got fun out of it too.

Overall, I’m taking back very lovely memories and of course all the affection and the good wishes….and all the presents that I have received; gifts of different kinds which I will treasure.”

But wait! She almost forgot!

What I’m going to miss most is the Wednesday and Thursday market; the fresh fruits; the vegetables; the papayas; the mangoes. I am also going to miss my favourite fruit vendors; the ones I used to buy from regularly. There were so many of them. And they used to give me all these little tips…..even on what I should do in my work.”

Her one regret? Never making the time to go to Iwokrama and to cross the Guyana/Brazil border at Lethem to Bonfim.

But, to borrow a quote from a famous actor now turned politician, Dr. Gururaja stoutly declared:

I’ll be back!”