Public health policy expert Anita Ashok Datar was one of 21 killed in last year’s Mali terrorist attack

In Sanskrit, “Anita” means full of grace and mercy.

According to her friends and family, Anita Ashok Datar was a leader who embodied her name.

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So it’s a fitting tribute that the 1995 Rutgers graduate’s legacy will live on in an annual lecture series established by The Institute for Women’s Leadership that bears her name. The lectures will address a cause Datar crusaded tirelessly for – women’s global health – with the inaugural event slated for spring.

A public health policy expert who worked around the globe with NGOs, Datar dedicated her adult life to championing the health and human rights of those most vulnerable. She was one of 21 people killed Nov. 20, 2015, during a terrorist attack in Bamako, Mali, where she was working to improve the region’s response to HIV/AIDS and reproductive health options. She was 41 and the mother of a young son.

“When I learned about Anita’s life and commitment to women’s global health, I thought this would be an ideal vehicle for us to expand awareness of women’s health issues and disparities as well as increase understanding of progress being made,” said Lisa Hetfield, interim director of IWL. “Our hope is, with funding in place, every year we can sponsor the lecture in Anita’s name and address pressing  issues of women’s global health. Her friends and family are eager to see that kind of lasting legacy.”

The plan is to raise funds for an endowment that supports the Anita Ashok Datar Lecture Series on Women’s Global Health, Hetfield said. The lectures will be open to the public as well as the Rutgers community, she said, and a committee will be formed to find scholars, activists, practitioners and policy makers who can speak to the ways in which women’s health issues intersect locally and globally. The topic of the first lecture is yet to be decided.

Datar’s former Rutgers classmate and longtime friend Francine Newsome Pfeiffer, who is also Vice President at the University’s Office of Federal Relations in Washington, D.C., approached Hetfield about launching a lecture series in Datar’s honor last spring.

“I wanted her life to be recognized and honored in some way, because her work was so important,” said Pfeiffer, who also graduated in 1995 and met Datar when they were preceptors – now resident assistants – on the College Avenue Campus. “I think there is a real culture of service at Rutgers.  Shedding a light on global health opportunities and challenges in Anita’s name seems like a really meaningful way to remember her and inspire others.”

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Datar was born in Pittsfield, Mass., and raised in Flanders, N.J., where she was an honors student. During her undergraduate years, Datar participated in Rutgers Summer Study Abroad in France, along with Pfeiffer.  

“That’s where I had the opportunity to see her remarkable ability to talk to anyone. She just soaked up culture and people,” said Pfeiffer.  “I remember being with her one day after class and she said she had made plans for us to have tea with a woman she had just met. We ended up having tea with a graduate student who didn’t speak English or French.”

After graduating with a psychology degree, Datar joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in Senegal. She traveled throughout the country, educating women and men on reproductive health, family planning and HIV prevention.

She returned to the States to attend the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and earned dual master’s degrees in public health and public administration in 2002. Datar moved to Washington, D.C., and for more than a decade, cultivated expertise in health policy and program development in support of reproductive health, maternal child health, and HIV prevention and management in the developing world.

“This may sound trite, but Anita truly wanted to make a difference in the world and she lived it every day,” said Pfeiffer, who remembers dropping Datar off for her Peace Corp training after college. “I believe it was from her experience in Senegal. She saw that there was just so much need.”

A year later, friends and family still struggle to cope with the loss of Datar.

“It was more tragic than one could imagine because she was in Mali to help people,” said Pfeiffer. “Anita lit up a room. She had these bright eyes and warm smile. And she had this laugh. Everyone talks about her infectious laugh.  That’s one of the first things I thought of when she died.  I’m never going to hear her laugh again.”   

To donate to the Anita Ashok Datar Lecture Series on Women’s Global Health, click here.