My mother’s maid came smiling up last Sunday. That was rare. Her brow is often creased, and her face drawn; she embodies the long-suffering, lower-class working woman in India.
Holding out a box, she offered me a peda. Her daughter had delivered a son.
I bit back the question that rose to my lips. Her daughter, I knew, had had a tumultuous pregnancy and been in and out of hospital over the nine months. Was her mother’s joy over a safe delivery, or over the fact that the baby was a boy! I did not ask, because I sensed the answer.
If by some mischance, the girl had miscarried, or perhaps lost her life as they sometimes feared would happen, the sorrow would have been tinged by the certainty that it was thus fated, and nothing could have changed it. After all women have been dying in childbirth all over the world, over centuries. A 2010 Lancet study “estimated that there were 342,900 maternal deaths worldwide in 2008. The global maternal mortality rate (MMR) was 251 per 100,000 live births in 2008”. And India is one of the six countries that report more than 50% of these deaths.
Though she lives in Mumbai, and the latest Sample Registration Survey (SRS) report released by the census office at New Delhi claims that the MMR for 2009 for Maharashtra had come down to 104 (deaths per 100,000 live births), she could have been part of that number, as easily as not!
I couldn’t help thinking: had the child been a girl…the peda might never have been offered. Anyway girl babies in Maharashtra are announced with laddus, perhaps because laddus are cheaper. And for the grandmother, and the mother, it could have become a point for accusation for the rest of their lives. A girl child would mean…well one knows the litany.
The helplessness of the poor in urban settings is well understood. What is incomprehensible is the helplessness of the government bodies that claim they are doing their all to ensure childbirth is safe both for mother and child.
Many years ago, I visited Jamkhed near Pune. I had first heard of it as I trudged along with some of its women, through the hot villages of Uttar Pradesh. They were on a mission to teach the local women,among other things, safe delivery. Their tools: a clean blade, sheets and thread.
Started by Dr Raj and Mabelle Arole, Jamkhed is at the heart of the Integrated Comprehensive Rural Health Development. Perhaps some of Maharashtra’s feel-good statistic that compares favourably, especially with the north and central Indian states comes from the fact that in the 300 villages around Jamkhed, the maternal mortality rate is equal to that of Sweden, which stands second in the world. India, in toto, is 127th in the list: Lancet.
Students from American universities come to study grass-roots applications of medicine at Jamkhed; its projects fan out to 100 countries, but Delhi or even Mumbai, is trying vainly to reinvent the wheel of safe births.
But to get back to the new baby boy. Biologically, nature empowers the baby girl with an immunity that helps her fight diseases better than boys of the same age. But I have no doubt that this baby boy’s family will spare nothing to ensure his survival.
The SRS report says that “the infant mortality rate—the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births—has registered a 3-point decline at 50 from 53 in 2008. Yet the fact that cannot be ignored is that more girl children are dying as compared to boys”. Unnatural!
The hidden assassin is the Indian mindset that sees no harm in doing away with the unwanted girl, before, or after she takes birth, wilfully or through neglect.
Unless this changes, no progress will ever make sense!
Sathya Saran writes on gender issues every fortnight.
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