Pregnancy is a big killer in India. According to conservative estimates, a young woman in the prime of her life dies every seven minutes due to pregnancy-related complications. And Unicef reports that, currently, we have a shockingly high maternal mortality rate (MMR) of 301 per one lakh. This means that out of one lakh Indian women who get pregnant, 301 are unable to survive the pregnancy.
Most of these are rural women from the farming community. Yet, when the recent spate of suicides by farmers were splashed all over our media and rocked Parliament, not one squeak was raised about the deaths of the farmers’ wives, which were several times higher .
Travelling through the dark bylanes of reproductive health in India, your senses are alerted to a strange kind of pollution these days: the pollution of silence. The silence of the formal health-care apparatus of the state making way quietly for the private sector, the silence of policymakers, the silence of the media. Together, they all guard and guarantee the silence of the poor marginalized women.
“See, it is like this,” Lad Kanwar, a health worker in the Bhil village of Jadapha in Rajasthan, told me. “Women have always died in childbirth here, so nobody questions another death. If they hear from newspapers that a male farmer has died somewhere due to akal ( drought) in the village, the very next day, government officials from the district headquarters will arrive in several jeeps and hold inquiries into his death. No Panchayat likes the stigma of a farmer’s death on its head, so they go all out to prove that the farmer died due to an illness, not hunger. And even if he has killed himself, it is reported that personal grief drove him to the act. But when a young 17- or 18-year-old woman dies giving birth, no one is ashamed. They all say it is God’s will, what can man do? Soon, they get the widower another wife and the dead one is forgotten.”
The chowkidar in the school across the road from my house is from Eastern UP. His little room nestles among some bushes at the back of the large school building where he sits drinking all evening and then he beats up his pregnant wife and children. He is neither good nor bad, just one of the millions of migrants from rural areas in Delhi who subsist in the moral and physical decay of a city getting too rich too fast. There is no point in explaining to him that a malnourished and pregnant wife must not be beaten even if she has not cooked his rice well. He has suffered trying to keep the household going, he says, so why shouldn’t she?
The guy who owns the school and has built two additional storeys in defiance of the city’s building laws, lives elsewhere elsewhere in some opulent farmhouse. He doesn’t care if his chowkidar’s wife dies in childbirth. He knows, I know, everyone in the lane knows that his school is not going to be demolished because his chowkidar drinks and beats up his pregnant wife and may kill her some day. The chowkidar may be arrested, but there are plenty where they camefrom, no?
Other states are no better. Madhya Pradesh with a Right-wing government, where the Shiv Sena brigades are busy tearing down Valentine’s Day billboards and beating up young lovers in parks, provides only one hospital bed for every 5.6 villages, with an average population of 2,000 per village. Over 58% of pregnant women in these villages are anaemic, and about 70% have a history of reproductive tract infections, which further increase the risk to their lives. But the government is busy first organizing yoga workshops that incite Muslims with their overt Hindu rituals, and then combating communal violence. It has no time to ponder over issues like women’s health.
The Left parties fare no better. The average age for marriage in West Bengal remains 17, a year below the legally mandated 18, and a maternal health audit held recently showed that between May 2005 and June 2006, there were 106 maternal deaths from only 55,000 deliveries.
In ancient Greece, an idiot (Latin idiota) was someone without access to knowledge and information. In India, today, it would mean most women and many men. Women like Lad Kanwar and the chowkidar’s wife see no options they can identify with and all their instincts are focused on dying or surviving. They need to live, to have families, to rear children and plan for their futures. But it is not their lives that the media and the politicians debate on TV when the UN releases its State of The World’s Children reports.
Are we entering a long dark alley of fascism with a local face, that of our neighbourhood chowkidar who beats up his sick wife when she can’t cook him a decent meal, and pisses in the school bushes when drunk? The face of the big jovial school owner who wants to invite me on 15 August to speak to the schoolchildren about how to be good citizens?
Sometimes, I feel, as mothers, we are all living in an airless basement with too many emotions, too little water and too much smoke. Rank poverty is slowly dropping out of our lives. Our cities are growing bigger and richer. But we women, bearers of life and death, are becoming like court jesters. We tell the horrible truth, everyone smiles politely in agreement, but it has no impact.
(Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the facade of news reporting. As chief editor of Hindustan, she indulges in her first love, writing in Hindi. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)