‘Women’s Health is one of the WHO’s Highest Priorities’ – Gro Harlem Brundtland
In a fast moving world of growth and development, women’s position in India is still worrisome, namely in health and education. This might be due to the behavioral patterns or ‘social and cultural factors’, which lay their foundation in the family itself, such as early socialization of roles. Some of the most notorious, deteriorating conditions that women face in India involve anaemia, reproduction, and HIV. This sphere of health conditions needs to be understood with a sociological perspective and how it relates to the lack of sensible education.
Anaemia: A Cause to Reproductive Problems?
First, it is necessary to recall the general understanding of anaemia. According to Oxford Dictionary, ‘Anaemia is a condition in which there is a deficiency of red cells or of hemoglobin in the blood, resulting in pallor and weariness’.
Data from the National Health Family Survey (NHFS) suggests that 53% of Indian women are anaemic. The survey mentions that “Anaemia also varies by maternity status—58% of women who are breastfeeding are anaemic, compared with 50% of women who are pregnant, and 52% who are neither pregnant nor breastfeeding”. This is a large group of women who often ignore and/or neglect their condition, largely due to the lack of awareness.
Doctors say that a mere supplementation of folic acid and iron would not suffice. There is an urgent need to bring a change in dietary habits of women to improve their condition. The change, however, is the inclusion of all other important nutrients in women’s diets. There are traditional norms that discourage women from eating more compared to men in their homes; or, it may be due to their ‘sacrificing’ virtues. For example, if there are two daughters and one son in a family, the son would get the best source of nutrients. Thus, it is important to raise awareness in families to inculcate the values of equality between sexes right from home.
Furthermore, reports suggest that anaemia in women is more dangerous during pregnancy, wherein deficiency can be transferred to newborns. Also, women become susceptible to other diseases after the strenuous act of giving birth, leading to hormonal problems, weakness, and menstruation irregularities. Hence, proper care is needed at the moment.
Another problem that is affecting women’s health is their susceptibility to HIV. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, our body’s natural defense against illness. Going by the reports of 2017, India is the third largest country experiencing a HIV epidemic in the world. Even though government efforts are helping to bring down HIV numbers, it is happening at a slow pace. The policies need to be made more inclusive with an approach to help even the remotest public.
The most affected group is female sex workers, 1.6% of which are living with HIV. Although sex work is not illegal in India, there are social stigmas and taboos associated with the occupation. Women may join the prostitution business due to financial reasons or personal choice. Normally, those women do not get sufficient pay for even a basic livelihood. Apart from this, men who go for the service may not be careful and partake in unprotected sex, which can be hazardous to both parties. These women have also been treated badly by the society at large. The institutions have developed and constructed social reality in such a way that sex workers are not accepted as normal beings in the family system.
Moreover, rural women, due to lack of knowledge and discriminatory practices, are especially vulnerable. In rural hinterlands, there is a notion of patriarchy wherein women have less freedom to ask for a good education.
Considering that this environment dissuades women from seeking education, how can a woman ask or even think about the effects of unsafe intercourse and better hygiene? However, awareness campaigns through media and NGOs could help break the stereotypes of shame and stigma related to the virus infection.
While learning about women’s problems- particularly health, it becomes important to address the issue with a broader social view. It is due to symbolic process of socialization that provides a role-set to actors, thereby driving their actions as per the defined roles. British sociologist and feminist Ann Rosamund Oakley, argues that a commonsensical view sees the distinction between men (masculinity) and women (femininity) as ‘obvious.’ But deep inside, this distinction and/or discrimination is a result of social and cultural patterns brought about by the patriarchal system. The patriarchal system leads to the subordination of women, ultimately affecting women’s health in a detrimental manner.
Meanwhile, feminists believe the ‘labour of love’ concept is the reason why women tend to instill a quality of care and why society generally accepts this as their nature. The notion, ‘labour of love,’ instills a behavior of self-sacrificing in her, which prompts her to place her health and needs secondary in the household dimension. For example, women tend to take their meals only after ensuring that everyone else is done. Even if there are insufficient resources, she will sacrifice her part to confirm that everyone else in the family gets sufficient amount of it. In that way, whatever household work she carries on, without any choice left, is her love for the family members. Thus, pregnancy or household work do not get economic compensation, for it is the notion of love that is deeply entrenched in the society; women’s minds and hearts have accepted this due to the continuous inflow of patriarchal knowledge. Hence, women generally don’t take care of their health, giving more importance to their relations.
Renowned sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in their work, The Social Construction of Reality, point out that socialization of roles through institutionalization creates the action and behavioral pattern of the members of the society. Any deviant can tear the social fabric. Therefore, through different processes, the deviant needs to be re-socialized to follow realities. This explanation clarifies the process of socialization since early childhood. New members of the society are then divided into socially constructed ‘gendered norms’ originating through patriarchal mindset. Such behavioral and societal patterns push the women into the “inferior” category as opposed to “superior masculine” men. This further contributes to the neglect of women’s health in the society.
There are arguments that claim that some cons exist, irrespective of so many pros of our society, especially in a binary of socially constructed genders.
Defining Education’s Role
As expressed before in the social understanding of this issue, patriarchy affects education too. Lack of education plays a significant role in worsening the state of women’s health. The Census of 2011 projects a disquieting position of women in terms of literacy. Only 65.47% women are literate in the whole of India, which is still a very low percentage. There is a need to not only increase the literacy rate of women but also disseminate quality education for overall growth.
Notwithstanding the above statistic, even literate women are little aware of their critical health conditions. Then, what about the illiterate groups, who are even more disadvantaged in knowledge? Thus, it’s important to popularize women’s health and make it a central point in mainstreaming women’s emancipation call clear and louder. There is a need to have a sensible education beginning with school curriculums. Specifically, for a long time, experts have advised the inclusion of sex education in a course to enlighten the students. This would help to bring awareness to students so that in later age, one would have sensitivity towards the opposite sex.
What Can Be Done?
Finally, there is hope, as many organizations, civil society groups, and activists are taking the issue of women in the mainstream debates. But, apart from these, there is a need to emancipate both men and women from the social dogmas. Awareness through advertisements, theaters, and movies, needs to be created.
In general, cinema has an important role in the disseminating of popular ideas; therefore, it should take a step to normalize social taboos like in Padman, Pink, etc. At the very least, families who watch such movies together can initiate conversation on the topics.
The government must bring in a new course where proper attention is given to women’s issues and health. Behavioral change campaigns (for menstrual hygiene, nutritional awareness, safe sex campaigns, gender equality in family systems) need to be developed specially for women’s health and must be prioritized.
It’s important to set a viable target in India to achieve a sustainable development goal for gender equality by providing adequate medicinal and social support to underprivileged women in the whole of India.[Image Attribute: skeeze]
This OpEd was written by U4SC Student Intern, Shrishti.