It's Not Her Fault

By Sitarah Mathias, a third-year student at St. John's Medical College

Chhatarpur. A sleepy, dusty little town in Madhya Pradesh connected only by road, where life moved in slow motion.  Yet, a college trip in January 2016 to this humble township changed my life.

The time I spent in Christian Missionary Hospital, Chhatarpur, opened my eyes to a plethora of socioeconomic hindrances that deter the development and delivery of healthcare in India including illiteracy, ignorance, limited access to healthcare, harmful social dogmas and cultural practices with adverse health implications. However, what struck me the most was the obvious gender discrimination and crimes against women.

   Rounds in the makeshift Neonatal ICU, were different from the rest of the hospital. It was there that I encountered a baby girl fighting a deadly infection. She was small, SO small, barely larger than my palm. Her skin blazed red from the toxins that coursed through her veins, and there were tubes entering and exiting almost every orifice in her body. The incessant beeping of the machines that kept her alive merged with the consultant’s monotonous presentation in the background as I pondered the injustice this 60 hour old girl had to face.  Despite her condition, she had a realistic chance of survival- but she was to be deprived the opportunity, by her parents, solely based on her gender. All attempts to convince them otherwise proved futile and they got their baby discharged against medical advice. The fact that Chhatarpur was going to lose yet another girl struck a cord deep within. Why were they not giving her a chance? I never saw the family again. I don’t know if that little baby miraculously survived, or departed soon after to meet her True Father in her Eternal Home. Regardless, this incident haunted me and I attempted to decipher the reason behind the parents’ oblivion to the benefits of keeping their little girl in the NICU a little while longer- but I couldn’t stay there anymore. The empty bed, unconnected tubes and dead machines left an empty feeling in my chest and I left the warm confines of the NICU to wander the cold hospital corridors. The shadowy grey corridor walls reflected my mood and gave my mind the blank slate it needed to come to terms with what I had just witnessed. I barely noticed the sting of the icy draughts as I mulled over the girl’s story. She was the couple’s third child, after both her older siblings had died a few days after birth. The delivery was long and hard, riddled with complications and the mother had lost litres of blood requiring transfusions to survive. All things considered, I assumed the parents would count their baby girl as a blessing, a precious gift to nurture and save. But, much to my frustration, it appeared that I was wrong.   

As I sat in the Emergency Room, watching the IV fluids drip slowly into the veins of the solitary patient, I could not get the little girl out of my mind.  This missionary hospital was famous for it’s charity, ruling out poverty as the cause for this family’s choice. I was in rural north India, a region where illiteracy and ignorance abounds, and where belittling and abusing the fairer sex was rampant and accepted. I noticed the dripping fluid speed up as I began to contemplate all the evidence that indicated the influence of  gender discrimination on health related decisions. From the very beginning, the father was indifferent to both, his daughter and his wife. He had never stepped foot into the NICU. In addition, he had to be extensively coaxed to procure the lifesaving blood for his dying wife.  All family decisions including the baby’s unjustified premature discharge was made by the father and his older brother.  None of the women – including the mother- were involved in any decision. Being a South Indian Urban girl, this affected me deeply. I had never faced perceivable gender discrimination before and I realized that for the past 21 years, I had taken this for granted.  My mind began to entertain some counterfactual thinking- What if the man had refused to get his wife blood and she had died? Would he have mourned her? Would he have felt responsible? Would he have felt anything at all? Or would he have considered himself rid of a useless burden who couldn’t bear him a son? What if their baby had been a boy, would he have been given a chance to survive? Did they want to take the girl back quickly because they knew she’d die without medical attention? Did they see this as a way of killing their daughter without being caught for female infanticide?  And even if she had survived, how would she have been treated at home? Would she be considered a burden in infancy, a maid in her adolescence and a commodity to be sold in marriage when she became of age, to yet another man who would abuse and ill treat her? Would she have received an ounce of respect in her life?

The commotion caused by the wheeling in of an unconscious 15 year old girl broke through my melancholic musings and my attention shifted to her neighbours, as they furnished the attending doctor with a history of urinary incontinence. A quick examination revealed that she was 20 weeks pregnant, and that the incontinence was actually her water breaking – killing the child in her womb.  On further interrogation the young girl’s tragic story was brought to light. . Her father worked in Delhi and her mother had disappeared after faking her death, to get away from the abusive hands of her own father. Alas, the young girl was left in the care of her maternal grandfather - just the man she needed to be protected from. She was robbed of her innocence too early and her story was teeming with horror – abuse, rape and incest all by the age of fifteen.

 My mind reeled as I realized that the women are abused by both – the young AND the old. They are treated as necessary commodities – required for children – preferably male-, for cooking and cleaning, for waiting on Man hand and foot, and for satisfying his lustful demands. The idea that women are human beings   with rights and deserved respect is non-existent.  I realized then that these instances weren’t unique to Chhatarpur. Many women all over the country are still subjugated by the opposite sex. However, men alone cannot be blamed. Women too are responsible for perpetuating this warped ideology. Every time a woman treats her sons better than her daughters, she encourages gender discrimination. Every time she emotionally abuses her daughter-in-law and treats her without respect, especially if she has borne a daughter, she further reinforces and encourages it, thus compounding the issue.

Our land is plagued with gender discrimination and horrific crimes against women - abuse, rape, incest, dowry deaths, female infanticide- it rings out with their silent screams. In order to deliver a fatal blow to the roots of this tree of inhumanity, we need Change. Our mindset needs to change - a monumental task, to put it mildly.  The winds of change have already begun to blow but are yet to reach gale force,  and bring about a radical change.  We live in hope that a time will come when every Indian woman is appreciated for her true value as a human being, a gift from God and the cornerstone of our society.