Women: Still many mountains to scale
By Patricia Mukhim
A Conference that brings together women from a cross section of Meghalaya’s population has to be celebrated. Above all a conclave that gives agency to women to articulate their angst and get their questions answered and their grievances addressed is something to be cherished. This is perhaps the first time that women entrepreneurs, members of different self-help groups, weavers and farmer producers have converged under the aegis of the State Health Department, Community & Rural Development, Social Welfare Department and the State Commission for Women. In a society where women are pushed to the shadows and their voices relegated to illogical prattle not worth paying heed to, on June 8, following the inauguration of the State Women’s Conference 2022 and post a panel discussion moderated by the State Chief Secretary, RV Suchiang, several women spoke up. In fact, the post panel deliberation could have carried on if not for paucity of time.
As someone who has had to literally clamber up from the dark hole of single parenthood and be where I am today, I can very well understand how difficult it is for Khasi women who are not ‘to the manor born,’ to find their space in this society. Our lives are a daily struggle. My only good fortune is to have an education, courtesy a single mother who struggled equally hard and begged and borrowed to keep me afloat through high school and then college. It was tough to makes ends meet and often my mother was amiss in paying school fees so I was sent home amidst great humiliation. But I guess that is what toughens every woman. There are millions of women who have been through what I did and perhaps worse but they have not given up and have fought the good fight.
When officials use the word “women’s empowerment” they cannot fathom the deeper ramifications of those words; the processes involved and the giant leap that a woman must take before she can speak up for herself and own that power and voice. Meghalaya has a total fertility ratio (TFR) of 2.9 which is just above Bihar which is at 3. Total Fertility Ratio is the number of children a woman gives birth to during her child-bearing years. The TFR betrays the reality because the respondents probably combine people from urban and rural Meghalaya. Just 32 Kms from Shillong is Kharang village. On my visit there as in other villages too, one sees cowherds that are barely 12-14 years all out of school because their parents can’t afford to pay for their education. On speaking to them one learns that the mother has seven children while the father is a labourer. This is a common plaint in Meghalaya’s rural outback. For those whose reference point for Meghalaya is Shillong, such realities may seem absurd.
A couple of years ago I was part of a University study group that sought to bring family planning awareness programme in a village in East Khasi Hills. We had taken a dildo to demonstrate how a condom is to be safely worn. The women who attended that meeting were shocked and covered their faces. They asked us how we could even bring such a thing. And that precisely is the problem with Meghalaya. Men and women will have sex but discussing sex is a taboo. It’s an activity reserved for under the bedsheets in the dark of night. If this is going to be the attitude of women and men towards sex; if sex cannot be openly discussed; if the husband and wife cannot jointly decide how many children they can afford to bring up, then it will take a revolution to bring behavioral change in Meghalaya.
When we asked women why they were giving birth to so many kids when they can hardly look after them, the standard response is, “God gives, so we must accept.” Not too sure that the blame should go to God for human indiscretions. Only after a conversation do women tend to open up. So, their story is that the man does not want to use condoms, while women are wary about intra-uterine device (IUD) for spacing and nor do they want to take pills. As far as sexual abstinence is concerned, women fear that if a man is denied sex on any grounds he may walk out of the marriage/relationship and leave them high and dry. That’s how brittle co-habitation is and yet it’s a tradition and no one seems to have any control over how to regulate the relationship between a couple. The Compulsory Registration of Marriage Act is not stringent enough but come to think of it, if even married couples can break up then what’s a registration? And the idea of maintenance is fraught when the man is working in the informal sector or is a labourer. No one can make him pay maintenance even for the children.
The bottom-line here therefore is that a Khasi woman does not enjoy sexual and reproductive rights. She does not own her body. It all depends on the whims of the male. Without that primary right over her body and sexuality what other rights can a woman hope to enjoy? All the feminist slogans about “My Body, My Right,” are good for educated, liberated women, not the rural woman in Meghalaya or anywhere in this country.
It’s important that women in rural Meghalaya are given intensive awareness and counselling about the need for spacing childbirth so that both the mother and child have better health statuses. Currently the indicators have shown that 54% of Meghalaya’s women in the age group of 19-45 are anaemic. The reason is because the gap between one pregnancy and another is less than 32 months as a rule. An unhealthy mother gives birth to underweight, unhealthy babies. Hence malnutrition and under-nutrition continue to remain high among children. According to the NFHS-5, the percentage of stunted children has marginally increased by 3 % from 44 per cent to 47 per cent in the four years between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5. The report found out that 47 per cent of children, under five years of age, are stunted, or too short for their age, which indicates that they have been undernourished for some time.
The percentage of children who are underweight (27 per cent) or wasted (12 per cent) has marginally declined since NFHS-4. Among the 27 per cent underweight which takes into account both chronic and acute undernutrition, even during the first six months of life, when almost all babies are breastfed, 23 per cent of children are stunted, 15 per cent are wasted, and 18 per cent are underweight.
Twelve per cent are wasted, or too thin for their height, which may result from inadequate recent food intake or a recent illness causing weight loss, and five per cent are severely wasted
However, one indicator that should worry the Government is the very high number of single-woman headed households which according to NFHS- 5 is 41%. We may protest that the numbers capture a small sample size but unless we have alternative figures we will have to work around this figure.
The answer to the above maladies is to get more public health care professionals penetrating the rural areas of Meghalaya. Government cannot rely only on its healthcare system. They need to combine forces and use the self-help groups in creating awareness on family planning among their cohorts.