In the 18 years Vaishakhi Mallik has been in the field of public health, her favorite part of her work has remained largely unchanged: listening to people’s stories and amplifying them to change policy.
As part of her role as the India country lead for Vital Strategies’ Policy, Advocacy and Communication division, Vaishakhi develops testimonial campaigns that often involve broadcasting the stories of people harmed by tobacco.
“Seeing these people just tears you apart,” said Vaishakhi. “My experience and natural ability to connect with people on the community level has helped me on these campaigns. I am very particular about all the sensitivities involved, and about informed consent. Sharing these stories is what I most love about my work.”
Testimonials can be a powerful influence on policy. Before Vaishakhi joined, the India team had told the story of Mukesh Harane, a 24-year-old man who used gutka (a form of chewing tobacco) and who died a week after the video shoot. The ministry of health ran the campaign after his death, helping to lead to a total ban on gutka in India.
And then, there was Sunita Tomar.
Sunita was 27, married with two sons, when Vaishakhi met her at a cancer hospital in Mumbai as she was preparing for surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in her mouth that was linked to her longtime use of smokeless tobacco. The surgery was complicated and included removing part of Sunita’s mouth. Sunita and her family consented to be a part of media campaign to warn others, and Vaishakhi helped develop the campaign, using a small production unit to gather images of Sunita before and after her surgery. The story, which was translated into 17 languages, aired on television nationally and was disseminated through social media. Vaishakhi feels deep gratitude to Sunita who, despite her personal trauma, agreed to have her story told because she knew it had the potential to save others.
Sunita’s story became the centerpiece of advocates’ efforts to put large graphic warnings on both sides of tobacco products. “Our aim to get 85% coverage on both sides of the pack was a huge ask and the tobacco industry fought back,” Vaishakhi said. “We worked closely on an advocacy campaign with civil society partners in India, and Sunita’s testimonial made a huge impact.”
After the media campaign ran, the graphic health warning regulation passed, but was put on hold when the tobacco industry challenged it in court. Sunita died on the day the policy was to have been implemented. She left behind a letter to the prime minister of India, writing that graphic warnings would have kept her from using tobacco and would have saved her life. Our team quickly made sure the letter was publicized, creating a social media campaign to spread the word and to keep pressing for the warnings to be implemented.
“People don’t usually understand the strategy behind using communication work to change policy,” Vaishakhi said. “One thing I really appreciate at Vital Strategies is that we don’t do communication work that only aims to spread awareness. Creating awareness is the first step: changing perceptions, attitudes and behavior, and influencing policies, is our main goal. I’m proud of this. It’s what I want to keep doing.”
Vaishakhi’s parents were brought up in Odisha, in the eastern part of India. Her father, the son of a farmer, was one of the few people in his village who went on to higher education. He became a professor and later joined the central government in New Delhi. Her mother also grew up in Odisha; her parents met in an arranged setup in the city and married there. Vaishakhi and her older brother and sister were raised in New Delhi.
Her parents encouraged humility, and wanted their children to be independent and to work through their own challenges. They spent time in their family’s village in the summer and stayed with their family to maintain those connections.
“Although my father was capable of providing us the privileges a senior central government officer had, he would always let us not have those kinds of privileges. He gave us minimal pocket money, asked us to travel by local transport instead of giving us his car to travel. Being self-dependent was the value that I grew up with. As a result, I am a go-getter, and a hardworking person, in my professional and personal life.”
During her childhood, Vaishakhi wanted to follow her father’s example and work in government, and her family expected that she would join the civil service. Vaishakhi’s older brother followed this path and went on to become a diplomat in the India Foreign Service.
However, when Vaishakhi was a teenager, she realized that she wanted to do something different, and considered commercial advertising and public relations as a career. Eventually, she earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in sociology from the Lady Shri Ram College of University of Delhi, and went on to post-graduate work in sociology at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Then one day, during her post-graduate studies, she was on a walk when she saw an advertisement for an internship posted on a pillar. A friend, who would later become her husband, encouraged her to apply, and that was the first time Vaishakhi considered working for a nonprofit organization.
At Global March Against Child Labor, an organization whose founder, Kailash Satyarthi, would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Vaishakhi began by working with children who were rescued from domestic child labor work, bringing their stories to help sensitize communities in Delhi about domestic child labor.
She was hired on staff after her internship, and while continuing working in few more nonprofits, she earned her master’s and master of philosophy degrees in sociology. Then, Vaishakhi went to work at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in India, where she met people living with HIV and helped connect their stories and challenges with the organization’s policy advocacy work.
“These were people who were facing stigma and discrimination. The way I interacted with them came very naturally to me,” she said. “When you go as somebody from Delhi to villages and remote districts, I had to build that rapport with them. You don’t sit on a chair they offer, you sit with them on the floor, holding their hands, as they are recalling their stories. Their children were discriminated against or could not attend schools. They often did not have basic necessities. I made videos of people who then died of HIV. I am proud of the way I built rapport with people and made them comfortable and got their voices heard.”
She later worked for Population Services International managing their communication program for TB control, as a Global Fund subrecipient to The Union. During one meeting at The Union’s office, she met someone from Vital who asked her if she would like to join World Lung Foundation, one of Vital Strategies’ predecessor organizations.
Since 2011, at World Lung Foundation and now Vital Strategies, Vaishakhi has worked primarily in policy, advocacy and communication on tobacco control. In recent years has also taken on managing road safety, hypertension and trans fat elimination communication work in India.
Vaishakhi is a spiritual person. She spends time meditating, loves music and aspired to be singer at one point. She develops her own home remedies for skin and hair care, based on ayurveda, a traditional Hindu system of medicine. She is also a self-described “shopaholic,” with a special love for silver jewelry.
Vaishakhi has faced two large personal challenges in recent years: she got divorced after having been with her husband for more than 10 years, and more recently she lost her older brother when he died of a heart attack at age 42 while serving as India’s ambassador in Tajikistan. She says both events eventually strengthened her spirituality.
“I practice spirituality because I believe in the universe’s energies,” she said. “I learned more about them after I passed through personal setbacks in life. Setbacks made me stronger, and strengthened my faith and belief in the power of gratitude. I ended up realizing that whatever happens, happens for a reason. Sometimes we don’t see the good through our human eyes in the physical reality, but it’s all part of the bigger plan.”