By Dr. Shelly Batra:
That night Hamida tasted blood again.
It began as a cough, a slow, lingering and painful cough, which suddenly became tearing and explosive. She felt as if her chest would tear apart and her entire lungs explode with the violence of the cough. With the cough came the unmistakable taste of blood and phlegm in the mouth.
Hamida was frightened. She rolled on the floor and found her menstrual rag. Wash one, use one, her mother had taught her years ago. Luckily it was the washed one. She stuffed it in her mouth, trying to suppress the hacking sounds. Her husband lay on a narrow cot nearby, snoring loudly, and deep in the arms of Morpheus. Lucky for me he had a drink last night, thought Hamida, he will never know about the blood. If at all he notices, I could pass it off as the ‘woman thing’, and he will never know.
Ever since her marriage, Hamida had been frightened of her husband. Tall and good looking, he nevertheless had a roving eye and jaunty demeanor and never failed to inform her that he was entitled to three more wives. Initially, it didn’t matter, but when the children came, 3 girls in quick succession, Hamida’s fears intensified. More so when the mother-in-law would scream- no son! Allah have mercy upon us! Who will save my son from this miserable wretch he calls a wife, this no-good defective piece, who hasn’t given him a single son?
Hamida always knew that if she could not produce a son, her husband would take another woman. But what could she do? Two years had passed since the last childbirth, and she wasn’t pregnant yet. Worse still was the cough that started a year ago. The cough, and the tiredness, and she couldn’t carry firewood anymore, and once when she was dragging her feet she had seen the old woman give her a suspicious look and so she had taken a deep breath and walked fast and brisk and tried to put a spring in her walk, even though her limbs were feeling like molten lead.
And now, there was the blood. Sometimes it would be just a streak. Last month it was a huge mouthful, and she was frightened. She knew what it meant. It was TB, the Killer Disease. Hamida knew she was doomed to die. Hadn’t she seen her own parents and 2 brothers die of TB? And what if the children got the disease? As it is the youngest girl was listless all the time. She wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t play. Why, she looked like a 6-month-old! And what if her mother in law found out? Nothing escaped her sharp eyes! What would happen to the children if I am thrown out of the house, thought Hamida in panic? Who will take care of them? And where will I go?
She looked around. It was a small hut, 6 feet by 6 feet, made of cardboard sheets, with a thick plastic sheet as a roof to ward off the rain. Nothing great, she thought glumly. Every year during the monsoons the roof would come down and the walls collapse. She hated the rains. Everything would be soaked and soggy, the bedclothes on the floor, the firewood, the food in the corner, and the mother-in-law would scream more than usual and curse Hamida loudly when the fire wouldn’t burn and there would be no food. But at least, it was her home. And it was her identity. She knew she must stay on, here with her family, in this little space she called home. She had nowhere else to go to.
Again it happened, the cough, the blood. The mother-in-law stirred in her sleep. Hamida got up from the floor. The youngest child whimpered and clutched her hand, but she resolutely pushed the girl aside to steal out of the hut, for nobody should hear her coughing and nobody should see the blood and nobody should know. She walked out and sat on the cold, hard ground away a little away from the hut, and waited for the paroxysm to pass. Nobody should know. That was the key to survival.
Hamida’s story is a reflection of the experiences of millions of women who suffer from TB in India with over 4.7 lakh women being affected each year. Reports suggest that TB diagnosis in men is almost two times higher than among women, but that might also be because the access women have to diagnosis and treatment is far more restricted. As evident from Hamida’s story, social stigma is what stops so many women from availing treatment for TB as they think that it will affect their marriage prospects or existing marriages. Even though data collected by the government’s national programme says that women are more likely to follow the due course of treatment (7% men default, as compared to only 4% women), unfortunately the low diagnosis rate among them reflects how it is an opportunity denied to them to live a cured, healthy life, as opposed to the men.
Leaving such a huge section of our population to suffer is a sad fact that needs to change now. #NoMoreTB