There’s little to celebrate for many Indian mothers on this Mother’s Day
Somewhere along the same time as the world decided that women were most important as a receptacle for bearing children, it decided that the second weekend of May would be anointed as “Mother’s Day”. Even if the woman who first coined the term grew to resent the implications of this day (and eventually disowned it), the tradition spread across the world; and thanks to an influx of advertising money, affluent Indians began to felicitate women with flowers and chocolates and breakfasts in beds on this day. And then once social media arrived, the day turned into yet another way for mothers and children alike to parade their perfect families.
But motherhood is not always beautiful photo opportunities and veneration (or even the difficult acts of balancing children and families and careers). And Mother’s Day is as good a day as any to remember the Other Mothers – the ones who can’t afford basic medical care during their pregnancy, the ones who don’t have any agency on how many children they have and at what age, and the ones who cannot exercise the luxury of choice. It is not a surprise that the recent State of World’s Mothers Report ranks the status of Indian mothers as 140th out of the 179 countries measured (the Index takes into account maternal health, a mother’s educational and economic status and political participation; and her children’s well-being). It is surprising that we are not talking about this.
Here are 10 sobering facts about Indian mothers which every mother and daughter should do something about.
Maternal Health and Nutrition
As recently as 2013, the World Bank referred to India’s extreme malnutrition as a ‘silent emergency‘. With the world’s largest number of people below the poverty line, India has the world’s largest number of anaemic and otherwise malnutrition-ed children and mothers. A recent study shows that 42% of Indian pregnant women are underweight (as opposed to 16.5 % of women in Sub-Saharan Africa). Add to that the fact that only 4 in 10 births take place in a healthcare institution and you have one of the world’s largest rates of deaths at childbirth. As per a 2013 WHO report, 50,000 women in India died during childbirth in that year. That’s one woman every 10 minutes and nearly 7% of the overall deaths among women of reproductive age.
What’s more, there is a significant gap in access to maternal health between the rich who can afford privatised health care, and the poor who can’t. (Did you know that only 27% of Delhi’s urban poor receive prenatal care as opposed to 93% of the richest?)
What You Can Do: Sponsor a mother. Organisations such as CINI conduct healthcare visits during pregnancy for vulnerable women and extensive follow ups in the 24 months to follow. Other organisations you can donate to assist maternal health programs include CARE and the White Ribbon Alliance.
Age of Consent and Agency
Women don’t always choose to be mothers – it is very likely that most of the four million teenage girls in India who give birth every year had little or no say in the matter. But what else can you expect from a nation where 47% women (no, “girls”) are married before the age of 18? The reasons for this are manifold but one of the strongest drivers remains a patriarchal system that puts undue emphasis on a woman’s honour – a burden that the parents pass on to the betrothed, irrespective of his age, intention or ability.
Only 49% of Indian women use modern contraceptive methods with just 3% on the pill (and only 5.5% have their partners using a male condom). And the most common method of population control remains mass female sterilisation. As the NY Times reported last year after a particularly gruesome incident led to the death of 13 women in a sterilisation camp:
All told, 37 percent of all the female sterilizations performed in the world are done in India, many in unsanitary, assembly-line conditions.
What You Can Do: Unfortunately there isn’t much that we can do to change the Government’s misguided policies about female sterilisation except to raise awareness. But it would be a mistake to assume that more affluent urban women have sufficient agency in sexual matters either. Indian urban women are much more likely to use the morning-after pill than ask their partners to use a condom or be on the pill themselves . So lobby for smarter sexual education, in your daughters’ and your sons’ schools. Teach them about the responsible sex and the shared onus of contraception.
Sharing the Burden
Let’s begin with the Maternity Leave policy in India- which at 12 weeks of fully paid leave is abysmally low for a national that otherwise wants to be ‘developed’. But even greater issues are the absence of a paternity leave policy altogether (except for the fifteen days that Central Government employees can take either before or unto 6 months after having their children) and the poor implementation of the 12 week diktat. Stories abound of women who are forced out of the workplace when they get pregnant or where they are asked intrusive questions even at the time of being interviewed for a job.
We are of course talking about a nation where men do 19 minutes on household work a day as opposed to a woman’s 298. Guess who’s changing the diapers here?
What You Can Do: Did you know that the Domestic Worker’s Act of India also gave domestic workers the same 12 weeks of maternity leave as you ? Speak out whenever you see an abuse of this leave policy- whether it is at work, or for your neighbourhood cook. Look for your nearest mobile creche which works with children of poor working parents and find out how you can help out with time or resources.
This Mother’s Day, enjoy the flowers and the chocolates (you deserve them). But don’t forget those other mothers who have little to celebrate on this most Hallmark of days.