“You will hardly find women with wombs in these villages. These are villages of womb-less women,” says Manda Ugale, gloom in her eyes. Sitting in her tiny house in Hajipur village, in the drought-affected Beed district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, she struggles to talk about the painful topic.
Women in Vanjarwadi, where 50 per cent of the women have had hysterectomies, say that it is the “norm” in villages to remove the uterus after having two or three children.
The majority of these women are cane cutters and 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.
Lakhs 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 per day to the contractor for every break.
‘Periods hinder work’
Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines. 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 SatyaBhama. 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 timeframe 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 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.