A recent campaign by women’s groups in Bihar demanding 50% participation of women in Bihar’s upcoming election has been a significant event. The Bihar assembly currently has around 28 women MLAs, which is six less than 34 women MLAs who were elected to the last assembly in 2010.
The demand from the women’s groups has been for nominating more female candidates across political parties to ensure 50% representation in the assembly. Bihar is a state which had declared 50% reservation for women in the panchayats; therefore, the inclusion of more women in the parliament will be a welcoming step indeed. The increased representation will also help in addressing specific gender-related issues in the state as well.
A cursory look at Bihar’s data on various gender aspects reveals areas that still require intense focus and help us delve deeper into the social norms that perpetuate gender-based discrimination in the state. There is a need to improve the usual indicators such as literacy rate among females to increasing female labour force participation and addressing gender-based violence. However, it will not be the sole responsibility of elected women representatives to address these issues. The Bihar government, on the whole, needs to acknowledge these issues and take the necessary steps.
Analysing the health indicators of NFHS 2005-06 and 2015-16, the table below shows improvement in many critical indicators:
The above data shows that between 2005-06 to 2015-16, there has been some improvement in indicators of access to water, sanitation, maternal health, and delivery care, among others. However, the indicators related to sexual and reproductive health, like family planning methods used by women has decreased over the decade.
NFHS 4 suggests that not only do 42.5% of women get married before they are 18 but also 12.2% between the ages of 15-19 years are adolescent mothers or pregnant. The mean age of marriage for girls below 18 in Bihar is 16.6, which is roughly the time one enrols for higher secondary. The total fertility rate of the state is 3.6, which is one of the highest in the country. Bihar experiences approximately 3.5 lakh teenage births, which contributes to high maternal and infant mortality rate.
The fact that the use of contraception among married women is low (according to table data) reveals that women experience limited choices and lack decision making power in marital relationships. They are expected to bear children right after their marriage despite their own scepticism or unwillingness.
The above sexual and reproductive health concerns are further aggravated under a disaster situation and have remained persistent over the years. There has been no attempt to address this even though Bihar is a state of recurrent disasters, and floods occur almost every year. These frequent floods are another cause of distress for women and girls as they have a gendered impact. While water, sanitation and hygiene situation gets seriously abysmal during floods, its effect on women and girls is far more critical.
During 2017, post Katihar floods, my organization did an impact study. The results of the study highlighted the grim reality of women and girls—one that requires not only intervention by health department but a convergent one from various relevant ones as well.
The assessment team tried to understand the general status of reproductive health to gauge the further worsening situation during the flood. But talking about SRH issues remains a taboo, and hence, women and adolescent girls were not much at ease while discussing such things, which are otherwise deemed extremely private. Our discussions also pointed to a general lack of awareness and knowledge about reproductive tract infections (RTIs) and sexually transmitted diseases (STIs).
During group discussions, these women and adolescent girls talked about certain aspects which they will hesitate to open up about—unless they find a safe space. Some of the issues they spoke about were itching and burning in and around the vaginal area that increased during and post floods, increased white discharge during and post floods. They mentioned that they do not have the scope to share these problems, be it during the flood or otherwise and get treatment.
They avoid going to PHCs and hospitals—as they are not comfortable talking to doctors about this issue on the one hand and on the other, even if they manage to do so, they find no proper medication, and reportedly, same medicines being prescribed for all ailments. The groups also mentioned visiting private practitioners, mostly quacks, for menstruation-related problems and other concerns, when they find them unbearable. These women and girls, however, have not found a permanent solution to these problems. Instead, it has been only temporary relief, and the problem resurfaces when they stop treatment.
The situation for pregnant women who had to deliver babies during the flood also deserves attention. Our interactions with the ASHA and Anganwadi workers revealed the gravity of the situation where childbirth took place on railway tracks or in makeshift tents built on the roads. The ASHAs are responsible for taking necessary care of the pregnant mother and assist her to the hospital for delivery. They mentioned that most of the PHCs closed down during the flood due to waterlogging. It is risky to carry the labouring women to health centres or hospitals wading through the rainwater, also difficult to get transport to reach hospitals.
Improving these indicators requires a holistic understanding of the social norms that restrict girls and women from taking control of their body and health.
When we talk about 50% women representation in the Assembly, it is imperative that women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health concerns get a priority. In fact, it is important to assess the social norms that aggravate such concerns. Last year, our adolescent girls’ groups in Phulwarisharif in Patna had an exercise where they kept the following demands to a local MLA:
The above demands put forth by those young girls are some of the issues that any government in Bihar must take up on priority.
Gender-based concerns have never been a priority for any political party in the state. It is high time that these concerns take centre stage. Bihar government has initiated various measures in the earlier period (daru bandi (alcohol ban), flagships like cycle schemes for girls, and so on), but there’s a lot more that needs attention.
It is important to focus on social norms and bring a holistic change. Our women leaders need to take cognizance of the situation and must act accordingly to ensure basic rights for women and girls.