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Gender bender

In India more than 65,000 women die every year in childbirth. That is to say, in our country every eight minutes a woman dies while giving birth, writes Seema Goswami.

health and fitness Updated: Apr 17, 2010 17:08 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times

A good friend of mine, Sumita Mehta, recently forwarded some statistics to me on safe motherhood. Or unsafe motherhood, as it should be more accurately described in India, given the high rate of maternal mortality.Consider the facts. The Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) in India is 254 to 100,000 live births, ranging from 95 in Kerala to 480 in Assam. This is the worst MMR in the sub-continent, worse than either Pakistan or Bangladesh. To make sense of this statistic, all you need to know is that in India more than 65,000 women die every year in childbirth. That is to say, in our country every eight minutes a woman dies while giving birth.

A shocking 50 per cent of these deaths are caused by haemorrhage and sepsis, and around 70 per cent of these deaths could easily be prevented by safer delivery methods and adequate maternal care (more than half of India’s mothers deliver without the assistance of any health personnel). As for the children they leave behind, they are ten times more likely to die in the following two years than those with both parents alive.

While these facts are horrific enough, what really troubles me about this situation is that for some reason, this is seen as a ‘women’s issue’. You know what I mean I’m sure. This is supposed to be the kind of soft story that women feature writers pontificate on in the pages of weekend supplements. God forbid that this should actually be treated as a story for the front pages of our newspapers, where it truly belongs. But no, maternal mortality involves women – so it should stay on the feature pages, the natural habitat of all female writers and readers.

What can one say about such appalling sexism except that it beggars belief that it is still alive and flourishing in the newsrooms of national newspapers and television channels? Think about it for a minute. Just because an issue involves the health and well-being of women, does it mean that no man could possibly have any interest in the subject? Doesn’t the health of a woman affect her entire family? Would not her death impact the men of her family as well, be they fathers, husbands, brothers or sons?

And when it comes to maternal mortality, this exclusion of men from the equation is particularly puerile and foolish. After all, who stands to lose the most when a woman dies in childbirth? It is the children who survive her and the man who is left behind to care for them. Husbands are perhaps the most affected by maternal mortality. And yet, let alone dub it a ‘men’s issue’ we don’t treat death in childbirth as an issue that involves men, even peripherally.

But then, if you ask me, there really is no such thing as a ‘women’s issue’ – or a ‘men’s issue’, for that matter – when it comes to such societal problems. All issues that involve the health and well-being of women impact society as a whole, and men who are part of that social fabric cannot be isolated from them without imperilling our society as a whole.

Take female literacy, for starters. We’ve all heard that old cliché about how educating a girl child means educating an entire family. And like all clichés, it contains a grain of truth. It is self-evident that an educated mother will make better choices about the health and well-being of her family, that she will bring up her children to value education, and that both her daughters and her sons will have a better role model to look up to.

Women’s health is another issue that impacts not just the female of the species but all of society. Anaemia is endemic among Indian women, with 56.2 per cent of women suffering from it. Around 33 per cent of Indian women are malnourished with a body mass index below normal. Is this really a problem for women alone? Do men not share the responsibility or suffer the consequences? But such is the conventional wisdom on the subject that issues like these are never given the importance that they deserve. We dredge them out on International Women’s Day or Safe Motherhood Day and give them a hasty airing before shelving them away until the next anniversary rolls around.

Consider the amount of press that has been devoted to the Women’s Reservation Bill and compare it to the attention that the issue of safe motherhood has achieved in the same period. No contest, is there? And yet, safe motherhood affects more people – both men and women – than the Women’s Reservation Bill possibly could.

If we accept that women hold up half the sky, then surely it becomes our duty to ensure that they can stand tall while doing so. Fail to do that and we run the risk of having it all collapse around our ears. Now tell me if you think that this is a women’s issue. No, I didn’t think so.

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First Published: Apr 17, 2010 13:51 IST