World News Day

India: Why women in Beed district don’t have wombs

| Updated on September 27, 2019 Published on September 27, 2019

The Ugale family in Beed. The family goes for cane-cutting every season as its members’ livelihood depends on it. Perennial drought and lack of work opportunities leave cane-cutters vulnerable to exploitation by cane contractors. Credit Vikas Ugale

School girls in Beed Child marriages are prevalent in drought areas. Girl children are married off even as young as age 14. By age 16 and 17 they have children, and then they undergo hysterectomy surgery so that menstrual periods don’t hinder cane-cutting work. Credit: Radheshyam Jadhav

Women farmers in rural Maharasthra. Despite the odds, women are making all efforts to cultivate land using organic methods. Instead of working as daily wage labourers and cane- cutters, many women farmers are now trying their hand at organic farming. Credit: Radheshyam Jadhav

“You will hardly find women with wombs in these villages. These are villages of womb-less women,” says Manda Ugale, with gloom in her eyes.

Sitting in her tiny house in the Hajipur village within the drought-affected Beed district of Maharashtra’s Marath-wada region, she struggles to talk about the painful topic.

Women in Vanjarwadi say that it is the “norm” in villages to remove their uterus after having two or three children. 50 per cent have already had hysterectomies.

 

The majority of these women are cane cutters who migrate to the sugar belt of western Maharashtra during the cane cutting season. With the drought intensifying, the number of migrants multiplies.

“The mukadam (contractor) is keen to have women without wombs in his group of cane cutters,” says Satyabhama, another cane-cutter.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women from the region migrate to work as cane cutters between October and March.

Contractors draw up contracts with the husband and wife counted as one unit. Cane cutting is a rigorous process and if the husband or wife takes a break for a day, the couple has to pay a fine of 500 Rupees (US$6.99) per day to the contractor for every break.

 

‘Periods hinder work’

Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines. Thus, the answer, in Beed, is to go in for a hysterectomy so the women no longer have them.

“After a hysterectomy, there is no chance of menstrual periods. So, there is no question of taking a break during cane cutting. We cannot afford to lose even a rupee,” says Satya Bhama.

Contractors say that during menstrual periods, women want a break for a day or two and work is halted.

“We have a target to complete in a limited time frame and hence we don’t want women who would have periods during cane cutting,” said Dada Patil, a contractor.

Patil insists that he and other contractors don’t force the women to have a surgery; rather, it is a choice made by their families.

Interestingly, the women said that the contractors give them an advance for a surgery and that the money is recovered from their wages.

Achyut Borgaonkar of Tathapi, an organisation that has conducted a study on this issue, said: “In the cane cutter community, menstrual periods are considered a problem and they think surgery is the only option to get rid of it. But this has a serious impact on the health of the women as they develop a hormonal imbalance, mental health issues, gain weight etc. We observed that even young girls at the age of 25 have undergone this surgery.”

Bandu Ugale, Satyabhama’s husband and a cane cutter himself, explains the logic behind the practice.

“A couple gets about 250 Rupees after cutting a tonne of sugarcane. In a day, we cut about 3-4 tonnes of cane and in an entire season of 4-5 months a couple cuts about 300 tonnes of sugarcane. What we earn during the season is our yearly income as we don’t get any work after we come back from cane cutting,” says Ugale.

“We can’t afford to take a break even for a day. We have to work even if we have health problems. There is no rest and women having periods is an additional problem,” he explains.

Septuagenarian Vilabai says that the life of a cane cutter woman is hellish.

She hints that there is repeated sexual exploitation of women by contractors and their men.

“Cane cutters have to live in cane fields or near sugar mills in a tent. There are no bathrooms and toilets. It becomes even more difficult for a woman if she has periods in these conditions,” says the old woman.

Many women in villages in this parched landscape said private medical practitioners prescribe a hysterectomy surgery even if they complain of normal abdominal pain or a white discharge.

This story by Radheshyam Jadhav was originally published by The Hindu BusinessLine on April 8

BEHIND THE STORY

The Hindu BusinessLine set out to provide in-depth coverage of the drought in large parts of India, given the fact that agriculture accounts for a substantial share of the Indian economy.

While reporting on the crisis in Maharashtra, in western India, Deputy Editor Radheshyam Jadhav came across heart-rending narratives about women undergoing hysterectomy surgery – to remove their uterus – under duress, for fear of losing their jobs as sugarcane-cutters. After Business Line broke the story, it was picked up by other media groups and even the international press.

Administrative action too soon followed. The National Commission of Women, a statutory body established by the Indian Government, which offers policy advisories on matters relating to women, issued a notice to the Maharashtra Chief Secretary UPS Madan asking for legal action to end the practice of womb removal by women working as sugarcane cutters.

Published on September 27, 2019
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