The Statesman 5 May
The Statesman, March 2021
In the plains, many young women face perils of a different sort when they go to gather the crops. The predators here can have a more human form. One hears unfortunate tales of many a young girl who is accosted while out in the fields alone or harmed by a stalker whose feelings she didn’t reciprocate. Ancient drawings depict young warrior men heading home after the hunt with animal carcasses slung on their backs. Now we see young girls on village roads heading back with the household water carried on their strong heads and shoulders.
All these women, young and old, keep the wheels of life turning. Despite this, the prevailing social circumstances do not allow women to take pivotal decisions pertaining to their lives. Rigid stereotypes still exist of their destinies being governed by hookah wielding patriarchs sitting comfortably under trees while women face exclusion and marginalization in decision making.
The second group I would like to laud are the fearless and feisty women activists who have been at the forefront of several popular protest movements in India. Many have been subjected to media trolling, bullying by the local authorities and undeserved jail sentences. I have a deep respect for activists because of their high level of empathy for others and their sense of justice which makes them work selflessly. Among many others, we had activists like Pinjra Tod NGO members, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, fighting for the security of immigrants in far-off states, though they are themselves based in Delhi. I saw a news clip on Natasha’s father (she lost her mother as a child) where he speaks so fondly and proudly of his daughter’s gender related activism. It was very moving. Though many people stand loyally with family and friends through their upheavals; it is activists who are the refuge of strangers in trouble.
History is replete with stories of activists who made great personal sacrifices for the good of the community. Like Nangeli of Cherthala village of Kerala, a poor Ezhava woman who cut off her breasts with a sickle when she was forced to pay tax for the ‘luxury’ of being allowed to cover them (only higher caste women were allowed to cover their breasts in Travancore in those days, anyone else doing so, was taxed). Her actions led to the abolition of the tax.
What is ironical is that people who spend millions advertising their products and lobbying officials to increase their own net worth, are deemed ‘successful’ in society, but activists who work to bring in changes that improve the quality of life of thousands are held in disdain by authorities for their social lobbying.
In the times of the COVID pandemic housewives have faced exceptional challenges – increased demands on their time from family members confined to the home, the frayed nerves and tempers of relatives displaced by the turn of events, increased incidents of domestic violence and reduced outlets for relaxation for themselves (in the form of friends or outings). Yet they have soldiered on, graciously believing that they have not been singled out, that others are facing their own challenges during the pandemic. As always, they think empathically of others.
In the professional world, a lot of care and enormous amounts of time go into apportioning credit for work done, and dealing with the angst of professionals who feel they did all the work but someone else got the pay hike or promotion. Yet at home, the same detail of appreciation is rarely meted out by the ‘head of the family’ or other members to the Atlas- like woman holding up the family’s personal world on her shoulders.
On International Woman’s day 2021, let us celebrate each and every woman as a special being with an important role to play in the changing world. That means shattering the barriers that hold back women. Let us truly hope that this women’s day is a turning point where women find a greater respect for their voice, their work, their thoughts and get to realize their full potential.
The Statesman, 14 December 2020
The Corona virus pandemic has brought in its wake sickness, unemployment, stress and uncertainty. Despite being overwhelmed on multiple fronts, people are struggling valiantly to make the best of a bad situation. The younger generation in particular has shown remarkable forbearance. As my daughter’s friend ruefully put it – “I went out to college and excitedly began the process of carving out an independent niche for myself in the world, yet here I am …. back to square one, cocooned in the family nest and confined to the house”.
We all think about a better future for our children but how do we go about ensuring that under such trying circumstances? After some ‘triaging’ what springs foremost to my mind as being of vital importance is: understanding and building up immunity to higher levels, practising kindness and compassion more abundantly, realizing how
Nowhere has the role of immunity been highlighted more
In his book “Quantum Healing’ Deepak Chopra speaks eloquently of the elusive ‘switch’ which connects an abstract thought to a concrete neurotransmitter molecule and thus translates an idea into tangible action. Somewhere behind this mystery lies the fascinating potential ability to be able to consciously unleash complex immunological cascades in perfect balance. However, till we make this magical evolutionary leap, we can rely on a balanced diet as well as freely and abundantly available
Kindness and thoughtfulness, often underrated, have never been of greater importance. Nowadays we often find ourselves dependent on total strangers. Elderly people living far away from their families are being looked after by neighbours with whom they may not even have interacted
In the initial days, kind heartedness towards those who had contracted Covid was not much in evidence. In some places, Covid positive individuals were shunned by neighbours. Petty-minded
Another entity that desperately needs a show of kindness is planet Earth, who is reeling from a pandemic of human acts that have relentlessly depleted her reserves. Earth’s ‘lungs’- her forest cover, have been greatly weakened by profit-driven and uncaring human activity. Even as we humans hope and pray that we contract the asymptomatic version of Covid if at all, yet our lifestyles of consumerism leave mother Earth violently symptomatic. These manifest as natural disasters– devastating floods, strong cyclones, raging fires and the like. Perhaps now is the ideal moment for each one of us to be a frontline worker in healing the Earth.
It is deeply ironical that the planet once provided us pure air abundantly, yet we polluted it to the extent that we have to sip clean oxygen out of cylinders. To restore the green status quo there are several initiatives that can be taken both at an individual level - such as growing plants and vegetables in our own backyards to the
We can also reduce the ‘toxins’- plastic and concrete – from the surface of the Earth by a determined plan to
To my mind, this pandemic brings a single message for mankind -that it is imperative to follow a sustainable lifestyle. If our collective actions now begin to spring from consciously caring about our own well-being , thoughtfulness towards our fellow humans and genuine love for Mother Earth and its species, this terrible suffering would be partly comprehensible.
The Statesman, July 31 2020
The much-celebrated occasion of Raksha Bandhan is around the corner. This used to generate considerable excitement when we were young. We made rakhis with Anchor thread and brushed them with used toothbrushes until the thread fibres shone.We then braided little beads onto the two side threads left long to tie them around our brothers’ wrists. Brothers busied themselves selecting the most thoughtful and appropriate gifts for their sisters. Rakhi highlights the strong and enduring bond between siblings. Sometime ago, someone asked me what the best gift was a brother could give a sister.
I felt the best gift was for the brother to truly understand his sister. I thought that one of the best ways in which this could be achieved was for the brother to step into his sister’s shoes for that day. To undertake the daily chores she does, visit the places she visits and so on.Today, I feel the brother can go one step further and intervene to ensure that his cheerful, sprightly sister has a bright and safe future. He can oppose his sister’s child marriage with all his heart if he encounters it. If his affirmative action helps his sister to continue to enjoy her childhood, complete her education and be saved from the stress and physical danger of a teenage pregnancy, there can be no greater gift. Child marriage is a rampant social evil that has destroyed many young childhoods that should ideally have been spent in pursuit of knowledge and in gaining confidence.
Globally, in around 21 per cent of marriages, girls have been married off before the age of 18 – that is about 650 million girls. Out of these about 250 million were married even before the age of 15. One third of the child brides in the world reside in India. Though the scourge of child marriage affects both girls and boys, the proportion of boys is far lower. The median age of marriage of a girl in India is 16.8 years (much below the legal age of marriage for girls which is eighteen years), while that of boys is 22.6 years (which is higher than their legal age of marriage, twenty one years).
Though cognizant of the complex social pressures including poverty, lack of physical safety and many others that compel people especially in rural areas to marry off their daughters early, I feel the human price of doing this is paradoxically far steeper. The deaths due to teenage pregnancy are two times higher in girls aged less than 18 years and three times higher in under 15- year-old mothers. Though our country is showing a slight dip in maternal mortality in the last decade from 130 per 100000 in 2014 to 122 in 2017, this figure is still unacceptably high. Pregnancy-related complications are the cause of the greatest number of deaths of girls in the age group 15-19 years. Poignantly, that is the very age when young children are deciding their futures and what they dream of achieving in life.
To have your childhood abruptly cut short because of a forced marriage and then to have your life cut short because of pregnancy complications seems a tragic waste of potential. Apart from outright mortality, many girls are left with permanent damage to their pelvic areas or urinary systems from the ravages of pregnancy on such a young body. This makes them have permanently morbid conditions for the long term and contributes to a lack of self -confidence. Not only is the mother’s health at risk, but the babies born to teenage mothers are more likely to be preterm, of low birth weight, or stillborn. They also have a higher morbidity and mortality rate. It is estimated that 15 to 18 per cent of children born worldwide have low birth weight (less than 2.5 kg) representing more than 20 million births a year.
India has the highest number of pre-term babies in the world – about 25 per cent of the overall share. Over 25 million babies are born annually in India and about 1.7 million have low birth weight – below 2.5 kg – and 0.4 million have very low birth weight – below 1.5 kg. Several articles in peer-reviewed journals provide data establishing that the young age of mothers – less than 20 years and low birth weight of mothers – BMI < 18.5 per cent were both risk factors (National Family Health Surveys of India) for low birth weight babies. Low birth weight and prematurity are associated with higher rates of stunted growth, chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in later life and neurological problems relating to cognition and neurodegeneration.Such children are also at risk of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a potentially blinding condition.
Prematurity is a leading contributor to neonatal mortality. India’s own infant mortality rate is 32/1000 live births (2018). Low birth weight babies are 40 times more likely to die in the first month of life. Thus, we can see that babies born to teenage mothers start life with a huge disadvantage. There are other social implications. Reports such as the 2006 one by International Centre for Research on Women highlighted that girls married under the age of 18 were twice as likely to be physically assaulted by their spouses and to feel that this was justified. The study of psychology tells us that children tend to internalize the blame for events around them. If a child bride who is mentally immature decides to take upon herself the blame for being beaten by her spouse or the ill health or low IQ of her child, you can imagine the mental stresses she would be living with for a lifetime.She and her spouse would also not be in a strong position to bring up their children well, if they are young and inexperienced about life.
The UN World Health Assembly goal is to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in the number of infants born with a weight lower than 2500 g by the year 2025. Reducing the number of child marriages will be a powerful way to achieve this goal. It will also pave the way for gender equality.
In 2017, a small group of social activists including myself had worked on a PIL on equal age of marriage for girls and boys (which currently stands at a differential of 18 years for the girl and 21 years for the boy respectively), since the Constitution recognizes all citizens as equal. The exact age would be the decision of medical experts and child rights activists who understand the deeper nuances. But having an equal age (whatever it may be) would shift the mindset away from child brides for older men. Though ultimately our PIL did not come up for discussion for reasons outside our control; a ray of hope is that recently the Union government has constituted a task force to examine the issue of child marriage. It could either support the NGOs dedicatedly working in the field of child marriage for several years or else, working jointly with them, come up with an effective solution to curb child marriage. This would address a multitude of issues in one stroke – overpopulation, illiteracy, gender related disadvantages such as domestic violence and wage gap.
So, awaken brothers! If you can picture your smiling and carefree sister, whom you played with lovingly as a child, turning into a mental and physical wreck because of a forced early marriage, it should bother you greatly. This Raksha Bandhan, give your sister a gift born out of deep courage and love. Do all in your power to prevent her from getting married before the legal age of 18. Gift her your unconditional support to realize her full potential.
(The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner)