Covering health issues as a freelancer based in India, Ankita Rao encountered plenty of misery and injustice, but one incident stuck with her. In less than six hours on a November day in 2014, a doctor sterilized 83 women using the same instrument, merely dunking it in disinfectant as he waited for the next patient to be placed in front of him. At least 13 of those women—most of them in their 20s and 30s—died.
In a story Rao wrote for Quartz India in 2015, she went beyond that shocking incident to uncover the societal forces that made it possible. She learned that thousands of poor women in the state of Chhattisgarh in central India were undergoing tubectomies, often after showing up at the hospital for a different reason, such as an infection. Community health workers get paid a fee for each woman they bring in for sterilization, and risk losing their jobs if they don’t fulfill their quotas. The procedures are easy and lucrative for doctors, Rao found, and the women involved are mostly lower caste or members of tribal communities.
Were marginalized women in India the only ones being subjected to these procedures? Rao knew that forced sterilizations had been common in the United States and Canada until the 1970s, and soon learned from her contacts that the practice never ended in North America. She kept looking for a way to tell that story. Last December, she read an op-ed in The Washington Post by a Canadian activist about Indigenous women suing the government over their sterilizations. Getting to the women took months, but Rao refused to give up, interviewing dozens of sources—lawyers, academics, advocates, and public health experts—for context and continuing to gently press for interviews with affected women. The result was her September 9, 2019, Vice story, “Indigenous Women in Canada Are Still Being Sterilized Without Their Consent.”
Rao, who recently left Vice to become the voting rights editor at The Guardian U.S., spoke with Emily Laber-Warren about getting people to open up about painful events, embedding victims’ experiences in the larger cultural and political framework, and not getting discouraged by reporting roadblocks. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What happened after you read the Washington Post op-ed?
I saw very little [else] about it. There was some local coverage in Canada and in Saskatchewan.
So you started reading local news? That’s a great tip. Do you have any advice on how to identify which small news sources to follow?
I think it’s about following specific reporters. Especially at those smaller outlets, it’s usually one person following that story.
After you found the local news coverage in Saskatchewan, what did you do?
That’s when I decided to apply for a grant so I could look at it further, through the International Women’s Media Foundation. [I knew] they had a [$3,500] reproductive justice grant, so this had already been in the back of my head.
Was this the first time you got a grant to do a story?
No. I’m a big fan of grants and I think everyone needs to be applying to many more of them. This is something that I rely on a lot when there’s a big ambitious story [I want to do]. There’s a lot of different grants, and having a timeline of what they are and when they go up and when they decide by is really helpful. When I was a freelancer I used to keep a list of them by month and remind myself if I needed to apply to anything.
Do you think the grant helped convince your Vice editors to do the story?
To get the grant, you have to have a letter of support from your editor. So there is definitely buy-in beforehand. But I think, in terms of the budgeting, definitely. Like, I got an interview and I booked the ticket that same day for two days from then. That’s not a cheap ticket. So things like that I got to do on the fly.
I actually ended up reporting and writing the story within two weeks, after six months of lead time. The writing was in two days, the editing was in two days, the reporting was in a week. That kind of stuff can only happen if you are allowed to spend money.
Why such a rush?
It was because of the grant. I was supposed to be done in June, and then I got an extension ’til July. The story, obviously, did not come out in either of those months, but I was hustling.
How on earth did you report and write this rich 4,000-word story in nine days?
It took me, like, six months to get this story. I started in January and was contacting people constantly, and it was so hard to get anybody willing to talk about it. If you’re trying to interview someone in rural Saskatchewan, you can’t just find them on Twitter and DM them. It was also around the same time that a lot of the women had joined a class-action lawsuit, and they had a publication ban on their names. So nobody would respond to me.
Did you ever feel like you were never going to get this story?
Fleeting thoughts, yes. I think in June I was like, Nobody is ever going to talk to me. I felt like, I don’t know, maybe I should just fly there and see what happens—but I don’t even have one lead. I was just in this place of having no idea what to do.
But I knew: These women exist. They’ve talked to the local news. To me, unless a woman who this had happened to [was] like, “Please go away”—short of that happening, there was very little that was going to make me not want to finish this story.
How did you break the story open?
Slowly, one thing led to another. When you’ve talked to enough people around a topic, they talk to each other. I think it’s a good thing when you’ve exhausted that circle, because everyone is like, “This woman is doing her work here. She’s really trying to figure this out.”
Finally, I got in touch with the lawyer earlier this summer. And she was like, “No, you can’t talk to any of the women because this is a very painful and traumatic topic and they are still going through the legal process.”
I was like, I totally understand, but this is the lens through which I see it. I’m really focused on the systemic violence, not just individual stories. I think because of that she said, OK, fine, come over and I’ll let you talk to some of my clients. I had to jump when I was told I could come.
Why do you think she relented?
A lot of people will parachute in, get a very sad story, write it, and leave. And my approach has never been that. I don’t think it would have worked if my story was, Here’s this terrible thing that’s happening. Versus what I was trying to lay out, which is, The colonial roots of this terrible thing are so steeped in our health system today that we’ve basically built a system where this is going to continue to happen unless we change it.
What was it like interviewing people about experiences that are so traumatic?
The women who I was listening to, they had to take multiple breaks. They were crying. They had to call family members. A lot of times they remembered things, even in that telling, that they’ve never said before out loud.
Can you give me an example?
One of the women—she’s referred to in my story as S.A.T. —I was like, “Describe your environment to me. What did you hear? What did you smell?” And she was like, “You know what? That smell—a burning smell—is actually the thing that still makes me nauseous today.”
That detail was so vivid.
Yeah. And even that thing the doctor said: “Now you’re tied, cut, and burned.” That stuff—I feel like it’s just in her brain, stamped in there, you know?
Is there anything you did to help the women open up?
The best thing I learned reporting in India was just being really comfortable in other people’s homes—talking to their family members and helping with lunch or washing dishes. Not consuming the experience. Spending time with people and not just trying to lead all things back to your story.
Do you ever worry about presenting yourself as a friend when in fact you’re not?
I’m not doing other people’s dishes, by the way. I’m doing my own.
You have your recorder, you have your notebook, they know why you’re there, and if you feel it’s going that route, I’ll just be like, “Hey, this is still on the record, right?” So then they realize I’m listening for a purpose.
[Another thing I did is] I gave the women the Zoom recorder to hold, and [told them]: If at any point you don’t want something to be heard, just turn it off. [It was] just kind of like, “You have agency over this tool, even if it looks bulky and has a big microphone on top of it.”
How did you manage to produce a draft in two days? Had you written the historical-background sections in advance?
I know a lot of people are able to write sections, but I have to start with the lede. I just don’t know how to write unless I know where I’m starting.
What were those two days like?
Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have that much time to think, because you can’t get confused. The other thing that helped me write it was thinking, This is not the only story I’m going to do. That took the pressure off trying to write this seminal piece and have it be the be-all and end-all. I was just like, Do justice to this story, put it out now and then stay on it and see what happens.
Many journalists don’t think to do follow-ups—or maybe they’re just not interested once they’ve “done” the piece.
I think it’s good to be aware that stories are never “done.” People keep living their lives after you’ve left, different communities experience sometimes similar traumas, and multiple stories need to be told. The same way reporters stay on a beat, I think it’s important to treat feature stories as the beginning, not the end.
How did you handle that constant dilemma for feature writers: vast amounts of material, not knowing what to put in and what to leave out?
I tried to read through the lens of a very impatient person—which is what I am. What are the facts that [will make a reader think], “Holy shit, what are you saying to me right now?” As, like, Morningstar waking up and finding out she doesn’t have an ovary and a fallopian tube—nuts, right?
So you knew you had these very effective moments, and you threaded them like beads on a strand to make sure you didn’t lose your readers?
Yes. It was very validating to see [after the story posted] that people were spending time reading the story. That was my main goal. The story is not one where you can read the lead and know [everything that’s going to] happen.
Talk to me a little more about the response.
There was a lot of engagement with it [but] I think the absolute and only response that I truly cared about was the response of Indigenous people. I found this subreddit called Indian Country, which is just Native people, and there was a lot of engagement with it. And to me that was like, OK, [I feel good]. Because a lot of times these stories are not read by the people that they are about. That disconnect is haunting. It almost feels [when that happens] like [we are] capitalizing on someone’s trauma.