PROUD TO BE A ZOROASTRIAN
ÂCOURTESY: JEHANGIR BISNEY, INDIA
Dr. Najoo Varkey has made it her mission to spread awareness about the medical risks that consanguineous marriages pose for the children of such couples. Radha S Prathi meets the good doctor who also volunteers at the Sheila Kothavala Institute for the Deaf
Dr. Najoo Varkey, a Parsi who married a Keralite, decades ago, is on a mission to educate people in the sub-continent about the harmful effects of consanguineous marriages on children. Having begun work as a paediatrician almost three decades ago, she found that many disabilities in children could be traced to the fact that their parents were usually first cousins who had married each other. She worked on the subject and published a paper on ‘Prevention of deafness due to consanguinity: a challenge to the nation’ at the 54th annual conference of the autolaryngologists in January 2002 at Bangalore to spread awareness about the tragic but preventable problem.
The statistics that she collected over the years motivated her to work on discouraging such marriages, which are rather common in south India.
“Nearly every second couple who were cousins parented children with some physical disability or the other, deafness being the most frequent one,” she explains. “Initially, people did express cynicism when I began to speak against the practice of consanguineous marriages. But I realised that those expressing cynicism were in no way affected by the practice. Young parents, especially mothers who bore the brunt of the ‘tradition’ by way of their children being born with deformities, urged me to talk their parents about the dire consequences of such marriages whenever a sibling of theirs was going to marry a first cousin,” says Dr Varkey. “This gave me the motivation to carry on with my work.”
Right to Information
Interacting with anganwadi workers, village panchayat members, staff of primary health centres and people at fairs and jathres, she has used radio, television and documentary films to convey her message. Her short films have had the desired impact on people because the protagonists are inadvertent victims of consanguineous marriages.
“People have a right to information. It is my duty to disseminate the right information because I perceive it as a major health problem. According to the statistics that I have collected, we have at least three million people with hearing impairment as a result of blood marriages,” she explains.
Dr Varkey’s work also targets social reformation as she finds that many families opt for consanguineous marriages to save on dowry or retain family property.
For the past 18 years, she has been working as a volunteer at the Sheila Kothavala Institute for the Deaf (SKID) in Bangalore, where, she says, nearly 52 per cent of the children having hearing disability because they are products of consanguineous marriages.
Though her mission keeps her busy all day, she manages to steal time to catch up on her reading — fiction and history are her favourites. Her pleasant nature, ready smile and steely determination are a source of inspiration to anyone who interacts with her. In fact, Dr Najoo Varkey brings to mind William Shakespeare’s immortal lines, ‘Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety’.