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Vital People

Anushka Mangharam, Technical Advisor, Civil Registration and Vital Statistics

Anushka Mangharam can pinpoint the moment that she awoke to the enormity of gender inequity.
The middle child of three girls in a middle-class family, Anushka and her family moved between Bangalore and Mumbai because of her father’s work. Her family was progressive and taught Anushka and her sisters to be independent and to seek work to provide for themselves.
At age 16, she was invited to sit for an exam to qualify for a scholarship to attend a select school in Singapore. Anushka entered the exam hall, and there were about 60 teenagers. She immediately saw that all of them were boys, except for her and one other student.
“That was the first time I felt outnumbered in life. In school, they tried hard to keep it balanced. At 16, it was so shocking to see that. We had a break during the test, and the other girl and I locked eyes and decided to spend the break time together without acknowledging that fact.”

She won that scholarship and later found herself leaving the country for the first time on a plane from Bangalore to Singapore with some of the other scholarship winners—11 boys.
“It was an early realization of how disparate opportunities are for women in general,” she said. She realized many girls probably wouldn’t even apply for a scholarship like the one she had earned. “I made a commitment to never let my identity, or the identity society imposes on me, determine what I qualify for and don’t.”
Anushka graduated from high school in Singapore and received a full scholarship to attend the National University of Singapore. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical science, but quickly realized that she did not enjoy working in a lab by herself.
Before her final year of college, she had interned with the Preventive Health Department at the Health Promotion Board of Singapore, where she conducted a cost benefit analysis of weight management interventions across the world and how sustainable they were, work she really enjoyed.
The Health Promotion Board hired her after graduation and she worked there for four years on the country’s national chronic disease and cancer screening programs, helping to develop policies and­­ programs and track progress in preventing noncommunicable diseases in the population.
She then went on to attend the Harvard School of Public Health in the U.S. for graduate school, again with a generous scholarship. She became president of the School of Public Health’s Women’s Leadership Student Organization and vice president of the Southeast Asian student organization. Along the way, she carried a dream to return to her home region to do work related to gender equality. She learned of Vital’s work while in the U.S. and continually checked job listings once the Singapore office opened.
After an internship with the Gates Foundation, an internship in Manila with WHO and a year at the Milken Institute, a think tank, she found a good fit at Vital Strategies.
As a technical advisor for Vital’s Civil Registration and Vital Statistics program, working out of the Singapore office, Anushka manages the program’s work in Bangladesh and Cambodia, with the goal of ensuring that all babies are registered at birth and all deaths are registered correctly.

She pays particular attention to ensuring that women are included in CRVS, since they have often lacked a legal identity.
“You see there is a huge discrepancy among women and girls in civil registration. It can be as unbalanced as nine male deaths to one female death registered in some regions. You are not even given a legal identity just because you were born female. It is just ridiculous. Death data for women is not accurately recorded or analyzed or used to make policy decisions,” she said.

Anushka is motivated by the injustice she felt all of those years ago walking into that exam room and on that plane to Singapore.
“My own experiences have helped me advocate on behalf of this initiative. Some countries are extremely sex disparate when it comes to public health in general. Most country staff are male. They just don’t understand why it’s so important,” she said. “Civil registration is not something a lot of women have been involved in historically.”
Women whose births are not recorded are more likely to be married at young ages and have less access to social services without an official legal identity. When their marriages are not recorded, they lose access to certain benefits and claims to property. When their deaths are not recorded, governments cannot understand why or where women die and are less able to address the causes.
Anushka is proud of what she has accomplished as a member of the Gender Equity Working Group for the Data for Health Initiative, which is helping to advocate for equity in birth and death registration across genders.
“There are two or three of us on the working group who work directly with countries. We are able to draw what is happening on the ground into the conversation and give reasons why people aren’t focusing on gender equity and CRVS,” she said.
Anushka has suggested engaging the ministry of women’s and children’s affairs in each country and being sure to look at data disaggregated by sex—both simple strategies, but often missed.
During COVID-19, Anushka has been impressed how the countries she works with have adapted, even those who may not normally adopt technology quickly. In 2020, Vital pivoted to supporting countries in counting excess deaths to understand the true toll of the pandemic.

Trainings that previously included 30 people in person can now reach hundreds of people online. In Bangladesh, a model CRVS initiative that was in one subdistrict in the country in 2016 expanded to 30 by 2020—and was able to scale nationally in 2021.

“We recruited a dynamic country coordinator and we got people excited about birth and death registration. We used to have to go to the field, and you could not cover the whole country in a year. This changed the game.”
Outside of work, Anushka loves to do hand embroidery, go on walks or runs, and spend time with her husband. Until the pandemic brought on shipping issues, she ran a small business importing healthy snacks and beverages to Singapore and selling them through a local e-commerce retailer.
She is grateful and committed to work at Vital because she has found the organization’s leadership has a “willingness to actually listen and learn from employees and take action.”

She hopes to one day become an expert on gender and public health globally, focusing on leaving no one behind when it comes to health.