While en route to Nepal, a twenty hour journey, Sarah Shearer ’12 picked up Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The book highlighted women’s health issues, which shaped Shearer’s study abroad research project.
Shearer departed last August on the Cornell Nepal Study Program (CNSP), a partnership between Cornell University and Tribhuvan National University of Nepal for American and Nepalese students to live and study together; the program also includes the opportunity for students to design and conduct their own research.
The first part of the program was spent attending classes about contemporary issues of Nepal, the native language (Nepali) and research project design. After multiple home-stays and a mini research project with other students, Shearer spent three weeks conducting her own research in the city of Pyuthan.
Apart from being a personal interest, maternal health is also a prominent issue in Nepal. As of 2004, Nepal had a 32 percent maternal mortality rate. Until recently, most women had no knowledge of pre-natal care or any kind of antenatal care visit prior to giving birth. Shearer explained that Nepal is currently in the process of changing from a Hindu Kingdom to a constitutional bureaucracy and as a result has been working steadily on health initiatives with the hope of resolving their maternal health issues.
Shearer’s research was completed through interviews with nurses (since there are no doctors) and pregnant women about their experiences and knowledge of prenatal care. Shearer found most women were aware of antenatal care. Furthermore, most had at least one antenatal care visit where they were informed of the warning signs for pregnancy problems, proper maternal nutrition, and appropriate lifestyle alterations during pregnancy.
The Nepalese government instituted a policy offering women compensation for traveling expenses to the hospital during labor. Since the implication of this policy, Shearer learned many women had chosen to give birth at the hospital, a safer alternative to home births, and had received the promised compensation.
After her three-week research period, Shearer concluded the situation for maternal health in Nepal is improving. The Nepalese government has been successful in its efforts to encourage expectant women to have pre-natal care and deliver in hospitals where birth complications can be promptly treated.
As a biology and society major minoring in global health, Shearer shaped her coursework to reflect her interest and hopes to attend medical school. She also spent last winter break hosting seminars about nutrition, HIV prevention, and hygiene through Enrich: Project Kenya, a student organization.
Through interacting directly with women dealing with severe maternal health issues, Shearer said she learned more than she could have in any number of classes.
“It’s one thing to learn about good practices during pregnancy in school. It’s another to go to a village, tell a woman to work less, and have her respond, ‘I understand but someone has to feed my children and work in my field, how will that get done if I don’t do it?’” Shearer said.
Shearer encourages undergraduates to pursue research with the belief that getting hands-on experience can enhance one’s education. To every student, Shearer said, “Go out of the classroom and get out in the world.”