Sunday, February 01, 2015

How about Ma Bachao?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, February 1, 2015

It is very well to talk about saving our daughters and educating them, but what about Ma Bachao, saving our mothers? Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

This is a season of symbols. A woman air force officer leads the official guard of honour to welcome President Obama; contingents of women and girls march in step during the Republic Day parade; the Prime Minister launches a Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign in Haryana, the state with the worst sex ratio in the country. All of this is good. Symbols matter. But are they enough?

It is very well to talk about saving our daughters and educating them, but what about Ma Bachao, saving our mothers? For every daughter that is killed, there is a mother who is demeaned, not respected. If she accedes to the demand to abort a female foetus, it is only because she knows too well what life will be like for a daughter if she is born.

Of course, even if the daughter is not aborted before birth, and is permitted to enter this world, there is no guarantee that her mother will survive. India’s worst-kept secret is that it has the highest number of women dying during childbirth in the world. According to the latest United Nations report, an estimated 17 per cent of the 2.89 lakh women worldwide who died during childbirth in 2013 were in India. In other words, 50,000 women in a year, or 137 every day, or around 11 or 12 every hour die due to pregnancy-related health complications.

For a country that is preening and pretending to be an emerging power in the world, and whose leaders glibly rub shoulders with the most powerful, this is unacceptable. Our place in the family of nations when it comes to our mothers is in fact at the bottom. Even Nigeria, a country beset by so many problems including the brutal killings of girls, women and children by Boko Haram in its northern and eastern provinces, does better than India.

The reason for the high maternal mortality figures is not just the lack of institutional deliveries, which means ensuring that every woman who is pregnant reaches a hospital or medical facility in time. That would help and the rate of such deliveries is gradually improving although not fast enough.

The underlying cause is the persistent malnourishment and under-nourishment of millions of women, many of whom are not yet ready to go through childbirth. According to the National Family Health Survey-3, an estimated 60 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 45 are anaemic. So even if you get such women to a hospital in time, they might not survive.

In any case, a large number of them are too young to bear children. They should have had the knowledge to protect themselves from pregnancy but know nothing about contraceptives or spacing. Even if they did, they are denied a voice, a say in whether they are ready to have a child. Also, even if such women survive childbirth, they succumb later to infections and diseases and their low birth weight children have slim chances of survival.

What is frustrating about this situation is not just this “silent epidemic”, as someone put it, of maternal deaths, but the fact that women continue to be seen mainly as baby-producing machines.
Since 1994, when India participated in the UN sponsored International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, the world community accepted that women’s health needs to be addressed not just during pregnancy but at all times. If women are healthy, they will be healthy mothers, giving birth to children with a fair chance of surviving. That is such an obvious point that it hardly bears repeating.

Yet, despite the internationally accepted concept of women’s reproductive health and rights that includes giving women the choice to have or not to have children, to decide how many, and to access health care for their other needs, women continue to be viewed principally for their ability to reproduce. And hence, whether it is people like Sakshi Maharaj urging Hindu women to produce five or more children, or so-called ‘population’ experts telling them to have fewer children, a woman is reduced to the sum of her reproductive parts.

If mothers cannot be saved, who will care for the daughters? It is easier to come up with catchy slogans than to get to the root of the malaise in our country, where women are valued only if they produce babies of the accepted gender, i.e. male, and if they do so quietly without raising their voices.

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