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“Are We, As A Nation, Failing To Make Women And Children Count?” – Shabana Azmi

By Shabana Azmi:

It is a little known fact that Mumtaz Mahal, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite queen died due to complications related to repeated childbirth. For all its beauty, the Taj Mahal is a grim reminder of the fact that, even after 400 years, we seem to have done little to improve the health of the mothers in our country. India continues to hit the headlines because of our shameful record on maternal and child health. UN statistics indicate that in India, a woman dies in childbirth every ten minutes.

STCOn the one hand, India is emerging as a global power and on the other, Save the Children’s annual State of the World’s Mothers table on ‘the best place to be a mother’ places India 73th out of the 77 middle-income countries listed. In assessing how we look after, educate and offer opportunities to our women and children, we do not come off well. At the same time, India accounts for one fifth of world’s burden of child mortality with 1.4 million children under the age of five dying every year. We lose one child every twenty seconds: what’s worse, most of these deaths can be easily prevented.

The number of women we lose due to pregnancy-related issues in one week in India is more than in all of Europe in a whole year. In other words, the number of women that we lose in one year in India due to pregnancy-related issues is the same as having 400 plane crashes annually. Can you imagine what would happen if that were the case? Governments would fall. But because in this case it is largely poor rural women who are dying, nobody is paying the slightest attention.

The question arises — are we, as a nation, failing to make women and children count? Or have we simply become numb to large numbers?

I’ve been campaigning on this issue with Save the Children since 2009. Despite our huge efforts to raise awareness of the daily struggles of families at our very doorstep, there is still a long way to go.

Why are we lagging behind? To be honest, it’s hard to know where to fix the blame: we score below average on practically every front. I can’t help but notice that our biggest black mark is the fact that women in India have only a 50/50 chance of having anyone skilled to help them during childbirth.

Statistics like this reflect on how, as a nation and a society, we treat women and girls: how we discriminate against them, disempower them, relegate them to the margins and once they’re there, neglect them. We’ve done this for centuries.

During my visit to a slum in Delhi with Save the Children in 2011, I met women too young to be mothers and health workers who have the tall task of ‘changing mindsets’ — something that will not happen overnight. One of the crucial areas that Save the Children has been focusing on is the importance of nutrition for both mother and child. Often overlooked, this is in fact the cause of a third of child and a fifth of all maternal deaths. Here again, we are not taking home any prizes. We have the highest rate of child malnutrition of all middle-income countries and the second highest rate in the entire world. A tenth of women in our country are undernourished themselves, and this is being passed on to their newborns from the womb as they start to develop, and on it goes.

The reality is that we are stuck in a vicious cycle. But with political will and increased social awareness, and with the excellent work being done by organisations such as Save the Children, I believe it is a cycle that can be broken.

The message needs to reach many more till our society is moved to redress this situation.

Taking care of our women and children, builds not just a generation but the nation itself. We neglect mothers at our own peril, at the peril of society. If we are to lead as a nation, we must put our women and children first.

These elections are crucial and we can change the scenario for the better. Make sure you #Vote4Children and join Shabana Azmi, with Save the Children India to advocate for a better future. Know more about the #Vote4Children campaign.

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  1. Monistaf

    While I agree with you that women’s and children’s health is an issue, I also contend that the same is true for ALL healthcare, including what is available for men. The issue, in my opinion, is a general state of affordable healthcare in the country and is nothing exclusive to women and children. “We must put our women and Children first”, suggests that men’s healthcare can take a back seat, because, Somehow, men are more disposable in your view, or less deserving of our sympathy.

    1. Lamya

      Hardly so. Women’s healthcare is so abysmal in many areas that it requires a lot more push and campaigning. It doesn’t discount the need for improving health among men, but that is a different battle.
      When a lady is ill, she risks carrying over the disadvantages of her nutritional status and immunity over to the next generation when she eventually might bear children. Moreover, she requires special attention to her health during pregnancy, delivery and post partum, again relevant only to women. Most people would know to go to a doctor when they are feeling a little under the weather, but it doesn’t strike everyone to visit the doctor for something as natural as pregnancy and childbirth and compounded with a mixture of traditions that could even be harmful, women and children definitely require the extra care. And that’s just scratching the surface.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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