By Kainat Sarfaraz:
Some moments get engraved in our minds and stay there for eternity. One such memory is from the day when I saw her for the first time. Oblivious of her own surroundings, she was carrying a broken pink bucket through a narrow lane with the morning sun rising behind her. She stayed in the slums near my apartment.
At 52, Shahnaaz Begum from Kolkata is a lonely woman. Household chores occupy her days. Mornings are reserved for fetching buckets of water for her husband from the nearby tube-well because he prefers to bathe in ‘fresh’ water. The duties do not end there. She has to serve her husband with hot chapattis for breakfast and pack his tiffin before he leaves for work at 6 am every day. He is a bus driver. She is a housewife who has mothered five daughters and a son. Four of the daughters are already married, and the son works in a nearby garment factory.
Giving birth to six children was not her choice. Neither was the domestic violence that came with it. She was happy with her first two daughters. It was her husband who wanted a son to carry his ‘name’ forward. Daughters, according to him, cost a lot of money whereas sons bring in a lot of money by earning or getting married. And obviously, his demands were of utmost importance. Thus she got pregnant for the third time and gave birth to a son. But just one son wasn’t enough for him. They tried three more times and as a result, they had three more daughters in their family.
Shahnaaz’s case is a classic example of how women in our country are yet to know about their sexual and reproductive rights. Inclusive of basic human rights, these affirm a woman’s right to have control over and make decisions concerning her own sexuality, including her sexual and reproductive health. Every woman deserves to enjoy her sexual life which should be devoid of any coercion, violence or discrimination. She has the full liberty to choose what she wants to do with her own body. However, most of the women in India rarely get a chance to celebrate this right.
We are living in the 21st century and yet the omnipresence of gender violence refuses to fade away. Misapplication of technology has aggravated the scenario further. Intended to be used to detect anomalies in the foetus, the ultrasound is often misused by people to satiate their curiosity about the sex of the foetus. Often, the decision making that follows the detection ultimately results in the highly skewed child sex ratio in India.
Unfortunately, women around the world do not have access to information that could change their living standards. Thus approximately 3,50,000 women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth. The figures are worse in developing countries. Complications from pregnancy continue to be the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19. This is owing to instances of early marriage and incest happening in certain regions as well.
Everyone has a right to make decisions regarding their own health, body, sexuality and reproductive life. But in a patriarchal society like ours, a woman’s opinions and wishes are constantly suppressed. The sexual and reproductive rights in India are massively violated. News reports dealing with rapes, child-marriages, dowry-deaths, coercion and sexual violence are a routine affair.
Along with protecting all people’s rights to fulfil and express their sexuality, sexual and reproductive rights also emphasize on the presence of effective health services and disseminating information related to it. For instance, very few women know that it is their reproductive right to decide the number, spacing and timing of their children along with having the information and resources to do so. And unfortunately, then, the story of Shahnaaz remains a common one in India.