This issue came to my mind just today evening, when I saw a programme on DD Pothigai, Magalir Choice, literally Women's Choices. The speaker was the excellent Bharathi Bhaskar, who usually lends such a sympathetic yet interesting voice to all women's issues.
The subject today was Women and Health; the treatment however far from the conventional sympathetic. Bhaskar did not talk about how women's health and related issues are ignored by others; Rather she spoke about how women often 'choose' to play a sacrificial role. She says, women too often assume that the world will come to an end if they admit that they are sick and need a break. Therefore while they will play florence nightingale to ailing parents-in-law, husbands or children, they will force themselves to carry on with chores, refusing to acknowledge that they need to rest. Secondly, and what is far worse, she says, to make the pain go away temporarily, they will medicate themselves, using prescriptions written long ago or simply swallow tablets that worked for someone else. She insists, women need to stop considering themselves the centre of the universe, and make family members take up the slog atleast occasionally, by attending to themselves when they fall ill.
This is ofcourse not an issue that has any clear answers; Bhaskar says women are giving themselves an unnecssary 'martyr' image and feeling compelled to play superwoman at the expense of their health, something that could in cases prove fatal. Why women should feel compelled to live upto this superwoman role is a whole different story. What Bhaskar says obviously applies to a section of middle-class or upper middle-class women who can afford to take that break. How do you tell someone who breaks stones for a living and waits for that Rs. 30 a day, that she needs to respect herself and take a break when she is ill? What will be the alternative source to pay for the medicine and for that lost day of work? Tbese are all very real issues that persist in every place you look, be it homeless squatters on our roads, building the roads we need or agricultural labourers in far off villages.
I dont know when we will find the answers to these. The 10th International Women and Health Meeting is currently happening at Delhi, though I havent seen too much media coverage. Some of the funders behind this event are the Ford Foundation, India, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada and the Dorabji Tata Trust, Mumbai. Conceptually a lot of ground has been covered with the positioning of women's health beyond maternal roles and procreation.
The concept note to the meet says, "Conceptually a lot of ground has been covered with the positioning of women's health beyond maternal roles and procreation. It is now widely accepted that health is dependent on age, class, race, caste, ethnicity, culture, location, disability, marital status and sexual orientation; and that it is also intrinsically linked to the production and reproduction roles that women play.". Well, someday, I hope we can leave out the Conceptually bit.