In her four decades-long career Dr Rekha Daver has not only worked on eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV but also relentlessly promoted women’s reproductive health awareness in rural and urban Maharashtra and fought stigma associated with AIDs and menstruation.
In an interview with News18.com, Daver, who is currently working as a Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, and is a professor emeritus at Sir J.J Hospital, in Mumbai, said that despite being raised in a Marwari family in Marathwada region of Maharashtra, her parents were very progressive, and always encouraged her to pursue her goals.
However, it was during her medical internship that she truly understood the kind of difference she would be able to make as a doctor.
“My medical internship was a turning point in my career. During my time, we were posted for the initial six months in a rural area and in my experience, I saw how most women were hesitant to approach doctors, especially if they were male doctors,” she said.
“I was always very keen to create health awareness for society, and my internship gave me the opportunity to do so. I saw that women were not aware of so many pregnancy and puberty-related problems, and since there were no safe and open spaces for them to discuss such topics, it became harder for them to access any information,” she added.
While many women faced problems because of their gender at their workplaces, it was being a woman that helped Daver reach out to women in rural communities.
“People generally think that just because rural women are illiterate, they would not understand medical issues. But that is a flawed notion. Education and intelligence are not the same things, and I discovered, if one perseveres, it is possible to make women aware,” she explained.
“However, one the biggest problem is that women are inherently resistant to talk about sexual or menstrual problems and often, they are so absorbed in taking care of their families, they don’t take care of their own health. That is a trend that needs to change, but I have seen it in 1975 as a medical intern, and I see it even today,” she explained.
As a young assistant professor since Daver had a keen interest in sparking conversations around the reproductive health of women, her professor would often send her for community sensitization programs.
“Marathi is not my mother tongue, but I spoke the language fluently. And one of the things that I told all women I met during those programs was that they should maintain a period (menstruation) diary. I also started talking about contraception and breastfeeding with those communities. These are conversations that were necessary, but no one talked about them back then,” she explained.
Daver also never stopped educating herself. When she and her family shifted to the United States she quickly took the opportunity to skill up. She completed a certification course in ‘Laser and Microsurgery’ from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
She learned about many medical advancements in the field of Endoscopic Surgery and other technologies which had not yet reached the Indian healthcare, and when she and her husband decided to return to India, because they wanted to serve their country, and the Indian healthcare system, Daver was excited about introducing these new technologies to Indian government hospitals.
However, fate had other plans for her in place. During 1981-1983 HIV was a big health concern for the United States of America, but since there was so little awareness about the disease in India, the common perception was that it wasn’t a problem in our country.
Upon her return to India, when she joined JJ Hospital in Mumbai, Dr Daver realised how misguided that belief was.
“The hospital was closely located to the main red-light areas of the city, and we saw many sex workers who were HIV positive and didn’t know it. Therefore, it became crucial to spread awareness, as well as explain the ways in which these women could manage the disease,” She explained.
Daver recalls that at the time HIV was associated with high stigma, and breaking the news to HIV positive patients were also a sensitive and challenging issue. She said that there were many cases where after a woman was told that she has HIV, she tried to take some extreme step.
Therefore, sensitivity, and confidentiality of the patients became very important to her. However, her main focus was to stop the transmission of HIV from mother to new-borns. “Once we started working on it, we realised that we can drastically reduce the transmission from the mother to the child,” she explained.
“These delivery weren’t easy, even staffs were reluctant to do them. Therefore, we counselled them too, and assuaged their fears. We explained that if proper PPE and other necessary precautions are taken, there was nothing to worry about. The process of destigmatising HIV was a long hard battle,” she remembers.
Finally, in 1999, her work was also recognised nationally, and she began working with National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), on prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.
Dr. Daver was nominated by the Government of India to be a part of National EMTCT (elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV) core group. “There will be a time when the preventive measures and a newer line of treatment would work in tandem to make it possible for these babies, born to HIV positive mothers, to be free from the dreaded disease,” she says confidently.
Her commitment to improve the health and well-being of women has been recognised by United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) authorities as well.
For her contribution to woman’s health and medical education, the Government of Maharashtra awarded her ‘Certificate of Honor’ in 2017 and the Indian Medical Association has also bestowed on her a ‘Distinguished Doctor Award’ in 2018. Doctor Daver is recognised for her expertise in vaginal hysterectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the uterus through vagina, in which, patients have a rapid recovery with minimal pain.