By Samantha Gilliams
Oral health care in India is a national issue. With approximately 95% (800 million) of India’s population lacking in oral care, French dentist, Dr. Jacques Verré, decided to ditch his job in Angers, France and move to Auroville, India to get to work. He opened up Auroville Dental Centre Education Research and Rural Action (ADCERRA) in 1982 and felt motivated to become “the dentist of Auroville.”
The clinic is a 15 minute drive from Auroville’s center, set amongst other local businesses and village residencies. A dirt road is taken to reach the clinic, where there is a small building fit with three treatment rooms. Each room is equipped with Japanese furniture designed in order for the practitioner and patient to be physically comfortable. The practitioner sits behind the head of the patient, while the patient lies relaxed on a horizontal flat bed.
Auroville Dental Clinic has treated over 25,000 people within Auroville and the Bio-region (at their second clinic for villagers) with the help of 10 village women whom he trained. He taught them how to do dental checkups, teeth cleaning, and fill small cavities by hand. In order to work in the clinic as a villager, one must be a married woman who can read and write Tamil. I understood the reasoning for reading and writing as inherent in a clinical environment, however I was curious as to why only married women were hired?
Jacques described how in rural Indian society, men clinically treating women is taboo, nevertheless in their mouth. He explained that they (patients and practitioners) prefer this job to be done by “women because women are mothers… They have softer hands and a more relaxed attitude.” Indian women have the potential to successfully treat 76% of India’s population who need dental care with their dispatching of dental knowledge.
Not only is Jacques challenging the gender roles in Indian society by empowering women through dentistry, he is also (positively) disrupting the caste system. For example, when someone from a higher caste needs a dental service, a practitioner from a lower caste may be the one sticking their fingers in their mouths (and visa-versa). Thus, there is an unspoken trust and will to help and receive care from/by all castes.
But, even though Jacques and the 10 village women are actively working towards public oral health from their clinics, the awareness in the villages is “almost zero.” Jacques and his team hope to figure out a simpler way to teach the villagers and demystify the fear that a large majority of rural Indian have around professional health care.
Jacques and the women who work with him are filling such a desperate need to for good oral hygene as well as the social implications of working with women. I applaud their efforts!