It’s time to understand ‘womanhood is beyond maternity’

It’s time to understand ‘womanhood is beyond maternity’

Maternal health in India is a reflection of the status of women in the country. @OxfamIndia is working to improve that.

Just because a woman decides to or has to -- since many and perhaps most women in our country do not really decide themselves -- give birth to a child, should her life change so much that either she is literally not alive any more or the after effects result in her not being able to lead the life she did pre-pregnancy? 

I am talking of women dying in the process of child-birth, living with an illness after that or, if they are fortunate to have neither of these, then compromising with their personal, social, academic, economic aspirations in life. Thus, maternal health for me means not only preventing maternal mortality and maternal morbidity, but also enabling women to lead a life in which they do not have to give up their profession, career, interests and hobbies as a result of going through child-birth or processes like abortion.

Come to think of it, the maternal health situation in India is both a reflection and an outcome of the status of women in the country. Maternal mortality is the extreme manifestation of the neglect of maternal health; maternal morbidity is a silent/invisible after effect, and having to compromise with your plans in life because of maternity is a societal and  cultural outcome. 

The scope of maternal health needs to be broadened much beyond institutional delivery, which is what it has been in the last decade. Last ten years have seen more women delivering in hospitals, thanks to the cash incentives offered under the National Rural Health Mission to the families and health workers. However, it is well known that these institutional deliveries are not de-facto safe deliveries. 

Ensuring good maternal health is important not only to save mothers and their children but also because when a woman becomes a mother, she does not cease to be the person she was and wants to be, beyond motherhood. Apart from safe deliveries, women’s autonomy to decide on whether or not, when and how many children to have and how to raise them are equally important aspects of maternal health. 

This includes women’s right to paid work, gender role re-distribution, encouraging professional environment, and social support. The situation in India is not very encouraging if one looks at the global gender gap index – the index reduced marginally from 0.655 in 2013  (rank 101 among 136 countries) to 0.645  in 2014 (slipping to rank 114 out of 142 countries). The ranking is based on a country’s ability to reduce gender disparities in four areas: economic participation and opportunity, education, political empowerment, and health and survival. Just as maternal mortality is much less in the developed world, so is the extent of change in women’s lives post maternity. 

Do the latter have a bearing on the former? Perhaps yes, because women’s lives as independent entities are considered valuable enough to provide favourable environment for reproductive and maternal aspects of their lives, so that their biological disposition does not put them at a disadvantage. For this to happen, women have to be valued for who and what they are. In the last few years, I have been very consciously observing the fact that several middle class and upper middle class families though may not mind having daughters but definitely want a son. Consequently one sees many instances where there are two elder daughters and the third youngest child is male. 

Thus while having daughters may not be a problem but it is not enough! May be they do not undergo sex-selective abortion and daughters and sons are equally taken care of, yet the fact that having a son is essential, is a subtle way of devaluing girls and women. Improving maternal health is important because we want our girls and women to live, bloom and prosper apart from and beyond motherhood.    


By Pallavi Gupta, Programme Coordinator - Health, Oxfam India


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