By Ila Ananya
Here are recent two stories that are quite telling about what our government feels about women’s reproductive health.
On 15th February, the Chhattisgarh High Court declared that RK Gupta, the doctor who conducted a botched sterilisation camp in Bilaspur in November 2014, had to be let off. It didn’t matter that the man had performed tubectomies on 83 women in 90 minutes, or that 18 of these women had died because of it.
It would be an “abuse of the process of the law” to proceed with the investigation, the bench said, because the investigators did not have the state government’s sanction to prosecute Gupta, a public servant. Evidently this “abuse of the law” mattered more than the women who had died because of surgeries he had performed. Apparently, it also mattered more than the women who had been infected because he had used the same gloves, syringes, and sutures on all the women. After all, he had even been rewarded earlier in 2014 for his ‘record’ of 50,000 surgeries in his career.
The second horrifying story is from Kalaburagi. On 6th February, more than 600 Dalit and Lambadi women gathered in front of the office of the Kalaburagi Deputy Commissioner to protest mass unwarranted hysterectomies that doctors in private hospitals had performed on them. The women had approached the doctors for problems like irregular menstrual cycles, white discharge, or pain in the lower abdomen, and instead of simply treating these problems, the doctors had told them that an urgent hysterectomy was the only way they could survive, or they would get cancer. “You have had children, so why do you need this organ?” the doctors asked them. We can only imagine the outrage that would have erupted if men’s genitalia had ever been removed this way. It would have been no surprise if the government had fallen.
These are two of the most recent cases that Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, and Minister of Health and Family Welfare JP Nadda obviously need to be reminded of, even though it hasn’t even been a month since they happened.
On 22nd February (in fact reports of RK Gupta being freed broke a day before this), Gandhi wrote to Nadda demanding that all hospitals be asked to declare the number of caesareans they performed every month. Gandhi also called for the “naming and shaming” of gynaecologists who performed C-sections on women “for no reason at all except money,” essentially saying that C-sections had also become a market. She was responding to a Change.org petition started by Bombay-based Subarna Ghosh demanding this.
Gandhi didn’t stop there. She told reporters, “I would like all women in India to get together and start protesting because a caesarean for a woman is very invasive, and it turns a natural delivery into something that is an unnecessary operation.” The key words in all this gyaan are obviously “invasive” and “natural delivery” — but even if we forget the part where she’s telling women what to do with their bodies, we can’t help but feel like Gandhi has caught hold of the wrong end of the stick. Why is she telling women to chase after so-called “natural deliveries” instead of dealing with the pathetic problems women shouldn’t have to deal with when they try to access healthcare (in this case reproductive healthcare) in the first place?
The extremely disturbing stories about the women in Kalaburagi, or of how RK Gupta was let off by the Chhattisgarh High Court on an unbelievable technicality are not new. While the Kalaburagi case has been happening in profit-hungry private hospitals across the country, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, state-run negligent government hospitals, as RK Gupta showed us, are not any better. We also know the problems that are prevalent in government hospitals, which PM Narendra Modi has conveniently ignored time and again in his rehashing of schemes for pregnant women.
Since we’ve been using recent examples of a sustained disinterest in looking after women’s reproductive health, there’s also the Supreme Court (SC) believing that it makes perfect sense to deny women healthcare for the sake of ‘research’. This time, on 23rd January, the SC dismissed a PIL on unethical research in cervical cancer screening by the Tata Memorial Hospital. The trials were supposed to compare the use of a “visual inspection with acetic acid” to a pap smear in detecting cervical cancer — but the research used a control group, where 1,41,000 women were not given any screening for cervical cancer. And 254 of these women died. Despite this, the SC dismissed the PIL stating that the women hadn’t died because they were denied medicine, never mind that denying the women access to easily available screening was the problem in itself.
While we are at it, let us also just say that if Gandhi is calling all women to protest caesareans being performed and is so in favour of women getting organised, why has the government taken so long to notice and vaguely register that women in Kalaburagi have been protesting against these private hospitals performing unwarranted hysterectomies for the last two years? After all this time of not responding or providing flimsy explanations, it’s not like the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Health have gone after the doctors who have committed these crimes.
The maternal mortality rate in India is one of the highest in the world: In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that nearly 45,000 women die during childbirth in India, accounting for nearly 17 percent of maternal deaths globally. A similar study by ORF in 2016 stated that after Nigeria, India was the second largest contributor to the number of global maternal deaths.
What is the point if women go to gynaecologists to get their problems addressed, when the only solution they are offered is a hysterectomy or tubectomy? Women, it seems, have to choose from one of two terrible sides, both of which are driven by profiting from policing women’s bodies: Private hospitals that have made women a market and government hospitals that have conducted tubectomies in huge numbers without any consideration. How has the government so easily forgotten the gynaecologist who, in Deepa Dhanraj’s harrowing film Something Like a War (1991) said with great swagger that he can finish a tubectomy in 45 seconds? It’s high time that Gandhi and the ministries all start looking beyond their own ideas of what is good for women and actually take women’s healthcare seriously.
With all this going on why is Gandhi spending her energy claiming that “natural births” are the issue at hand, as if there is some pure and morally uplifting way to go through childbirth? Notice then also the onus is on women to demand this pure existence? She might as well say that all pregnant women in India should demand organic food.
Photo courtesy nevil zaveri via Flickr by CC 2.0
Co-published with Firstpost.