Close to the heart

August 19, 2013

The statistics are sobering: nearly half of every 100 children born in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, will be underweight; six will die before their first birthday. More than 80 percent of all children report repeated physical abuse; some 44 percent of girls and 56 percent of boys report sexual abuse. Child labor is common and, for girls, so is marrying—and bearing children—while still in adolescence.

Reality runs deeper than statistics, however, and Tannistha Datta (MPP '09) knows this well. She works as a child protection specialist for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Uttar Pradesh. There, UNICEF partners with the government, civil organizations, and nonprofits, and reaches out to families and communities to improve children's health, wellbeing, education, and safety.

Datta works on issues of child labor, child marriage, human trafficking, and sexual abuse, among others, and her work is close to her heart. She is grateful for the chance to help improve the lives of children who "are often the most neglected and forgotten—the 'invisible' children who have slipped through the cracks of the legal, justice, and social protection systems." She leads a team of 16-18 people who directly implement UNICEF programs and support key government efforts to plan and monitor child protection systems. Her work also involves policy advocacy, so analyzing data, compiling evidence, and documenting what she finds is crucial.

Datta came to the Ford School with eight years of work experience and clear goals in mind, including developing higher-level skills in analyzing data and evaluating policy impact. The Ford School was rigorous, its student body diverse, and the school offered strong course work in international development. This was particularly true of Susan Waltz, says Datta, whose classes "offered a perfect mix of theory, practice, and experiential learning" and Dean Yang, who helped sharpen Datta's "skills of interpreting research and understanding how evidence can help us plan better programs."

The work is hard and the challenges are many, but Datta takes them in stride. "They do not bog me down for long," she says. "And in any case, the work would not be so gratifying if there were not so many challenges to overcome, right?"