It sounds like a bad film script. A college teacher in Chembur, Mumbai, walks out of class, climbs seven floors and jumps out. Reason: unbearable back pain due to a spine ailment, as her suicide note explains.
Back pain can indeed cripple and make life living hell. Yet, a majority of rural women and an unspecified number of urban women live with constant back pain, the most common cause of which is an RTI (reproductive tract infection.)
Surveys carried out among rural women prove that living with an unmentionable infection that has unpleasant side effects that include nagging pain, is something that women take as given. The incidence of RTIs is highest among the uneducated, those who marry and start bearing children in their early teens, and among the urban poor. The maid who comes to cook or sweep, the women who work in factories are all part of this picture. Add to RTI the spectre of sexually transmitted diseases, and the picture becomes murkier. The National AIDS Control Organisation places the number of afflicted Indian women at 30 million.
Those from the well-off sector are not exempt either! Women still believe that going to a gynaecologist is a matter of shame, unless of course they are pregnant. There is a stigma and shame attached to “womanly” ailments, and they are best swept under the carpet.
The new lifestyle modes add their burden. When 17-year-old Anita, undergoing the mandatory medical tests before she flies off to start a prestigious course at a US university was told she was anaemic and deficient in B-Complex and D vitamins, her parents were stunned. They spared no effort to give her the best of everything. Then why? But Anita is only one among the 75% of Indians who suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Artificially lit, air-conditioned living and work spaces are the prime cause. And girls, because they spend less time in the open sunlight, are more susceptible than boys to this deficiency.
That is not all. Anaemia and osteoporosis are other by-products that face the younger generation, targeting girls more easily. The Arthritis Foundation of India predicts that one in three urban women over 45 will suffer fractures, and half of the world’s fractures will be in India by 2013.
Dr R. Mehta of Sterling Imaging Centre, Worli, Mumbai vouched for the fact that women in their 20s show up signs of osteoporosis, thanks to improper diet, or a career path that leaves no time for a balanced lifestyle.
Endometriosis, a silent, debilitating affliction that can cause pain, and infertility, is another growing threat, which will affect more urban working women as the age of marriage and childbirth get pushed into the mid 30s and beyond.
What is the lesson in all this? That women must start to take care of their health. In many homes, the health of the woman comes last. Doctors are called when a child falls ill; if the man of the house is sick, everyone tiptoes around and no expense is spared. Women, even high earners, on the other hand, tend to take pain for granted, and go relentlessly on. Pain is invisible, and can be concealed by the victim, who possibly believes she is the stronger for it.
Yet, considering that women are pursuing jobs and careers in increasing numbers, having them nurture health time bombs that can go off at any stage in life, endangers not just the quality of their lives, but also the structure of the organization they serve, causing serious damage in money and (wo)man power terms.
Rural and poor women have to still wait for quality medical care, but the urban, well-to-do woman can walk into a clinic for a check-up, or to diagnose her problems any time. She seldom does. This has to change.
And if she can also sensitize and finance the maid/cook/whoever, to seek out good health, she would have made a difference!
Sathya Saran writes on gender issues every fortnight.
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