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The trials of women in pursuit of a baby

Jul 14, 2015

In many parts of India, non-conception is almost always followed by the insinuation of the existence of a 'fault' in the woman.

Chennai:  For the eleventh time in three months, Uma, a domestic worker in Chennai, was late for work. After a round of angry remarks about her lax attitude from her employer, she trudged indoors to begin sweeping. A point came when she couldn’t stand up anymore, and she fainted. Uma’s employer rushed her to her physician, who diagnosed her with severe dehydration. Just as the nurse began to plaster the IV inlet onto her wrist, Uma got up gingerly and asked, “Will this treatment affect my current treatment?”

What followed a gentle probing was the enumeration an enormous case history: three months of multiple rounds of medical testing to see if she could conceive a child, and if not, what could be done. “I’ve been married for a year now, and I haven’t yet gotten pregnant. My mother-in-law says that I must get pregnant soon – she got pregnant within three months of marriage. If I don’t, they may even have my husband remarry.” In the interim, since the testing began, Uma has been to 13 doctors, 10 of whom suggested bizarre forms of treatment, from taking pills to losing weight to ill-advised hormone therapy - given that her reports suggested she didn’t need it - and even certain “walking exercises” to augment fertility. “I have been following these guidelines regularly. I take the medicines they tell me to, I do the exercises they tell me to – but it has been to no avail yet.” Uma feeds right into the mentality that begetting a child is all her duty is – besides serving her husband and his family. The larger undercurrent that this chain of events subserves is the patriarchal bent of mind that perceives women as fit for nothing more than procreation.

Non-conception is almost always followed by the insinuation of the existence of a “fault” in the woman. All of Uma’s reports have showed that she is physically fit, able and in no way constrained to have a baby of her own. Notwithstanding what their reports say, quite like in Uma’s case, the husband is almost always never tested. “When I suggested that my husband should also be tested, I was slapped in the face by my mother-in-law. My husband went off on a diatribe about how I had the audacity to insinuate a deficiency on his part. In my village, when I confided in my mother, she didn’t like that I had asked for my husband to be tested. She said it was unbecoming of a woman,” she shares. Meanwhile, Uma has been forced to take medicines that aren’t necessarily good for her health. The buck didn’t stop there. She was been taken to temples, churches and mosques on advice that is invariably ubiquitous and in plentiful supply in Indian society.

Of course, there are countless women who face a far tougher deal: those whose reports carry the conclusion of infertility. Uma’s friend Kavita, another young newly-wed, is one of them. She isn’t happy: a year into the marriage and with no baby on the way, her in-laws had her tested. “My reports showed I was infertile. For some time, they took me to different doctors and had me tested again and again. They took me to temples, had me perform rituals at the behest of their favored priests and even had me fast on pre-decided days. But when nothing worked, a point came when they concluded that I was a waste of their money and efforts. There were no more visits to the doctor or temples. I was relieved - until they told me to get out of the house,” she recalls. Kavita was forced to return to her mother’s house while her husband was busy getting ready to marry again. While at her mother’s house, life was not easy. “Maybe my parents wanted to be caring, I don’t know. But they saw me as an impediment for my sisters. One, because I was back home from my marital home and two because I was infertile. Perhaps they were worried that it would be perceived as a hereditary thing,” she says.

With time, Kavita realized that she was no more than just an unwanted guest. She was seen as a burden, and on occasion, an ill omen. She left her village to come to Chennai, where the promise of work seemed to show room for a brighter future. With time, Kavita found herself a place to work as a domestic help. “The family I work with has been good to me. My life is good; I have nothing to complain about. Yes, there is one regret – that I didn’t get to have a happy family life of my own. But this way, I find that I enjoy a measure of independence and I am not answerable to anyone but myself,” she remarks.

Not everyone is as lucky as Kavita, though. Many women find themselves without a means for economic support once they are spurned out of their homes. The few who are taken back into their parental homes are given a measure of support, but even that comes with a price. “People talk. No matter what your own family says, a village is a small place. Your business is everyone else’s business, and no one has any sense of respect. Stigma is a very difficult thing to deal with,” observe Uma and Kavita.

Dr Rupa Krishnaswamy, a young gynecologist in Chennai, who devotes time to holding free consultations, says that many of her economically backward patients face such challenges. “Most of the time, I see mothers-in-law dragging their daughters-in-law to get them tested. I’ve seldom seen their sons. These girls, for their part, are forced to comply with what the older women expect of them. It is simply out of the need to survive in an otherwise complex situation. I find it very difficult to have to tell these girls their results – either way, a tough predicament awaits them. There are options for infertility – but many of these are either beyond the means of those involved, or, are not preferred because they are not ‘natural’ methods,” she explains.

As a doctor, Krishnaswamy makes it a point to ask the mothers to bring their sons to be tested as well, after educating them about how there could be a fertility issue in the man as well. “On very rare occasions, these women bring their sons. Most times, they either ignore my suggestion, or get a little aggressive about it. I try my best to educate them, but I haven’t seen it change minds much,” she rues. In many instances, she finds that these girls struggle under the obligation of having to obey their in-laws on the one hand, and attempting to make their in-laws see the sheer logic underlying the truth in the situation. Either way, it is a tough spot for them.

The irony is that Tamil Nadu is cited as a model state for maternal health and birth control. Women in predicaments of this sort not only face the burden of their in-laws’ antagonism, isolation and economic deprivation, but also bear the unfair burden of stigma, pressure and socio-cultural demands to prove oneself worthy of inclusion.

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