By Avinash Pandey
A newspaper carrying a story titled, “Why many women in Maharashtra’s Beed district have no wombs” should have shocked India despite the current electoral frenzy the country is undergoing due to parliamentary elections. The story had all the elements to stir the conscience of even the countries not famous for any democratic claims, leave alone one that fashions itself as the world’s largest democracy. Yet, it hardly created a buzz but for the regular ‘suspects’- some really rooted activists.
The district referred to in the story is in Maharashtra, one of the prosperous states in India. The women concerned are agricultural labourers brought to cut sugarcane, one of the lifelines of the state’s economy, and often the only source of work for the poor in Western Maharashtra. However, what, if anything, does that have to do with the women having no wombs?
Everything, is the answer. Cane cutting is rigorous work with deadlines, and menstruation hinders it. The deadlines are so important that skipping even a day’s work invites a penalty of Rs 500; quite a sum for the Indian poor, most of whom live under Rs 100 (roughly USD 1.75). Though the story doesn’t elaborate on the exact wage they get for a day’s work, it is clearly much less than the daily wage.
In fact, another story by Parth M. N, a fellow of the People’s Archive of Rural India- a web journal and archive following agrarian distress closely, gives us a very fair idea. He found that the wage rate is Rs. 228 for every ton of sugarcane a couple cuts. Most of them cannot cut more than two tons, so it comes to Rs 456 a day. The wage is in fact far lower than the minimum wage rate stipulated by the state government for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREGA), the Indian government’s flagship project to tackle rural distress and unemployment crisis.
Even worse than being forced to remove their wombs, is the fact that these workers are forced to pay the expenses for the same too; the modus operandi is that the contractors pay for the medical procedure first, and then deduce the same from their wages and pushing them into almost debt-bondage.
Sudden medical emergencies are one of the biggest causes in India of the poor falling into absolute poverty. Mostly living on daily wages when work is available, the poor seldom have any savings to rely upon for emergencies. In such a scenario, any sudden bout of illness to any member of the family forces them to borrow money from local moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates, going up to as much as 10% per month. Soon, the interest itself ties them into debt-bondage, a euphemism for slavery in India.
These workers are not the only women in India suffering such grave abuse. The World Economic Forum ranked India at an abysmally low 108th in its Gender Gap Index out of 149 countries. When it comes to women’s health and survival, India ranks 147th.
The abuse of Indian women begins right from the womb- the same wombs these women are forced to remove. Many of them get killed in the wombs itself, as is evident from the sex ratio at birth that fell from 908 in 2012, to 877 in 2016. The government of India’s own National Economic Survey too confesses the same, gravely noting that 63 million women are missing from its population across all ages, with another two million disappearing every year- most of them to either female feticide or infanticide.
No one can bring those back who are already gone. No one can perhaps also return the wombs of the women robbed of them. What can be done, however, is for Indian authorities to ensure that this crime stops immediately, whatever the costs. If they don’t, their claims of being a democracy are nothing but a cruel joke.
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About the Author: Mr. Avinash Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to
Food Programme, AHRC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.