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Reading between lines of inequity

Anjali Mehta |

As a medical practitioner with a keen interest in gender-related social work, I often end up counselling patients on social challenges they may be facing.

This is because people commonly open up to doctors about various aspects of their lives, since a doctor is usually seen as a neutral and sympathetic professional. Apart from clear cut medico legal cases, one often senses that things are not right, when for example, a bruise is unexplained, even though the patient may not be forthcoming about the background history.

Here’s a glimpse of what I sometimes read between the lines when patients come to me: Occasionally, I get a parent who winds up the description of his small daughter’s ailment and his concern about her future with this sentence “after all, Dr Sahib, she belongs to the tribe of girls”. In my mind I can immediately sense the pall of gloom in the parents’ thoughts and my heart goes out silently to the little girl.

I try to visualize the environment this child must be growing up in. An innocent little girl, carefree by nature, brought up in surroundings where everyone around is acutely aware that she belongs to the ‘tribe of girls’ and the implications that go along with it.

One can imagine that her parents and relatives are careworn and weary; uncomfortable with the burden of bringing up a female child. They feel weighed down about being responsible for her safety in a world of rapacious men and perhaps falling into financial debt at a later stage when the girl is to be married.

The father probably magnifies it all in his mind and drinks away his sorrows. Usually the presence of a small child invokes a feeling of indulgence in the hearts of adults nearby and the child senses that affection.

Imagine a child that grows up in an environment where it feels that its presence is contributing towards triggering anxiety in the mind of adults. Such a child is bound to have low self-esteem, feelings of anxiety transmitted from the parents as well as all sorts of complexes.

The father needs support and counseling as well. He does not have the maturity and acceptance or even the confidence that he can be an adequate father.

Social ills like dowry affect men in equal measure since men are usually the ones who have to pay the huge financial sums involved in dowry transactions and this can easily land them in debt. So, for the father, it is emotional as well as financial anxiety.

It needs to be defined and taught as to what sort of environment is to be created at home so that the child can truly blossom and reach its full potential. Likewise, a whole lot of thoughts flip through my mind when an illiterate woman comes for an eye check up and the husband condescendingly says ‘she cannot read”. It is sad to know that the woman is usually the only such individual in the family, as the children go to school and are getting an education.

I often ask the family outright why they cannot take time out from their studies/ retired life respectively and teach her for just half an hour every day.

They themselves would be surprised at how easily adults pick up reading and writing. Last year, on Mother’s day, we had run a small campaign to try and encourage children to teach their mothers.

We tried to co-opt principals to facilitate this. People focus on educating the young but why should a generation of adult women be condemned to illiteracy? Recently, a lady came to me and begged me to attend to her quickly otherwise she would get a scolding from her mother-in-law for staying out too long. I was incredulous; how could her mother-in-law assume that she would hang around longer at the doctor’s intentionally?

The lady further narrated how she had wanted to show her children and herself for a long time but was not encouraged to leave the house nor did anyone in the joint family agree to accompany her to the doctor.

This upset me on several counts. Firstly, in the mother-in-law’s overwhelming desire to dominate the daughter-in-law and curb her activities, the children’s health was being overlooked. In the larger context I thought about how the family system can end up exploiting women. It seems that men have three tiers of help – the domestic staff, the wife and often the doting parents, as in joint families, the married couple stays in the boy’s house.

In the case of a lady she often has only the support of the domestic staff, or in some cases, no support at all. What is painful is that whatever little energy she has, goes into fending off an unwelcome and often patriarchal environment.

It never ceases to amaze me, that even with these multiple layers of support, men earn more and are lauded for their achievements whereas keeping the relatively limited resources of the woman in mind, it is her victories that are all the more commendable.

Women do a lot of balancing between chores, children and professional duties and it can lead to mental and physical stress.

In contrast, men often focus on just their professional work. Yet at work, men and women have the same sort of targets which they must deliver on. In today’s world, given the complex multitasking a woman is compelled to do both at home and the office, her achievements are truly impressive. Occasionally, there are female patients who, despite being knowledgeable and articulate, don't get a chance to speak to the doctor at all, because their well-meaning relatives just take charge and describe the woman's entire illness to the doctor. In a patriarchal society women often are suppressed and their personalities not allowed to develop.

The only place where such women can actually speak freely might likely be with their small children at home, since they don't get to socialize much. For a nation that prides itself on the garrulous and argumentative nature of its citizens, these women seem to have missed out on this mainstream pastime. Interacting with patients on a daily basis and reflecting on what they are experiencing, brings to mind the obvious question: how do we help alleviate their problems?

There are two national debates raging currently, one on the misuse and influencing of police personnel by powerful leaders and the second on the dilution of laws protecting women.

These have highlighted how even some of the institutions created to help the public do not provide adequate succour to women in their time of need and distress. Perhaps the answer lies in ensuring there are a large numbers of women legislators in the National parliament to keep social issues pertaining to women firmly in the forefront and help solve them.

(The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner.)