Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Mother's Day gift

This is a Mother’s Day blogpost on the appalling state of maternal health worldwide and on something we can do this weekend to make a change.

Save the Children just published the 2013 edition of their annual State of the World’s Mothers report. “Any report on the state of the world’s mothers is by definition a report on the state of the world, full stop.” (Melinda Gates, in her Foreword to the State of the World’s Mothers 2013 ) So begins the Foreword to the report.

Just a small sample of statistics from the Executive Summary of the report:
  • “Every year, 287,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, and 6.9 million children die before reaching their fifth birthday. Almost all these deaths occur in developing countries where mothers, children and newborns lack access to basic health care. While child mortality rates have declined in recent decades, 19,000 mothers still mourn the loss of a child each and every day – an unthinkable number of heartbreaks.” (Carolyn Miles, President and CEO, Save the Children.)
  • “Every day, 800 women die during pregnancy or childbirth and 8,000 newborn babies die during their first month of life.” (Page 5, Executive Summary)
  • And India, where we like to say we worship the mother-goddess, “has more maternal deaths than any other country in the world (56,000 per year).” (page 9, Executive Summary, State of the World’s Mothers 2013)
And look at where South Asia stands, with China and Singapore as comparison points:

Maternal Health: Lifetime risk of maternal death
(1 in number stated) 2010
Mothers’ Index Rank
(out of 176 Countries) 2013
Sri Lanka

The report makes five recommendations to ameliorate this situation:
“1) Address the underlying causes of newborn mortality, especially gender inequality.”
“2) Invest in health workers – especially those working on the front lines – to reach the most vulnerable mothers and babies.”
“3) Invest in low-cost, low-tech solutions which health workers can use to save lives during pregnancy, at birth and immediately after birth.”
“4) Strengthen health systems and address demand-related barriers to access
and use of health services.”
“5) Increase commitments and funding to save the lives of mothers and newborns.”

But these need to be social priorities, our priorities. Even for women with access to decent health-care, there is always a chance that something can go wrong. What is the infrastructure for taking care of them at that point? The best of doctors cannot compensate for a shortage of ambulances, bad roads, interrupted power supply, shortage of blood in blood banks, and so on.

Most of us are not in a position to fix these big things. But all of us want mothers everywhere to have safe, healthy pregnancies and for babies everywhere to be healthy, well-nourished and safe.

Two years ago, I frantically searched for Indian organisations working in this area to one of which I could make a donation. In that moment of crisis, I could not find one, and so I made my donation to UNICEF.  In anticipation of this year’s Mother’s Day, I crowd-sourced and put together this list. Thanks go out to Pervin Sanghvi, Ingrid Srinath, Bharati Ramachandran, Ammu Joseph and Anindita Sengupta for making suggestions.

I should explain that I had simply asked on Twitter and Facebook if people knew of organizations doing work in the area of maternal and reproductive health, and these are the organizations whose names people thought of. I did not ask for recommendations of which organization they thought I should donate to. You should read through their websites and do your own checking on the things that matter to you. For instance, you might seek clarity on what they do; whether they are already very well-funded; whether one can access their reports; where they work. You might choose to support research and advocacy over service provision. Your call.

But my request to you is that you do spend this time, and if this issue speaks to you in some way, and if you were going to spend money on a Mother’s Day gift or treat anyway, you consider making a small donation to one of them as well (not instead!). You may think your budget is small but every little bit counts towards something—from staples for an office stapler to paying for one bottle of vitamins or whatever—everything will find a use. You were already going to spend money or a saree or a lunch or flowers or jewellery. Why not show that gratitude and love in a way that will add up quickly? I plan to.

And this Mother's Day weekend also ends with Akshaya Tritiyai on Monday--a day we celebrate by buying gold but also a very good day for acts of charitable giving. Give it a thought. 

The list, in alphabetical order.
I have tried to find out and share some information about each, but it wasn't always possible. Do add any other information in the comments section. 

A reminder of why this has been an important concern to me: this blogpost on my two grandmothers.  I cannot believe that the same health issues persist so many decades later.

via Meeta Sengupta on Twitter: Here is a calendar of many Mother's Days observed around the world. If making a donation this weekend does not suit you, you can take your pick. It's always an auspicious day to give.
Also, an article on the origins of this observance. It was intended as an opening for dialogue and peace, and we can make it that again.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Blank mind, blank page

After carrying a lot of resentment and exhaustion around for the last two years, I recently began to clear space on my desk, in my mind, to do the things that would make me feel good. And the one thing that I really want to do is write. Not write about policy. Not write academics. Not write a novel. Not write  Not write with an agenda. Not write for an audience. But just write, like breath. 

In these two years, I have wrestled with words. Found them everywhere. Found them excessive. Found them noisy. Felt choked by them, and silenced, too. I have sought silence. Or at least an absence of words. But I have also struggled with words because they were never the words I was yearning to write or read or engage with. They were other people's words or other people's agendas that I had to process through words. Too many words. 

Since I began making space for myself in my life, the strongest yearning I have had has been to write. I want to write so badly that I can touch the desire. I know there is such a thing as a flow of words, and I want to dwell in that flow. I have known that flow in my life. I want it back. 

But right now, I am sitting at my desk, cluttering my idle mind with lots of things like reviews for films I will never watch and recipes for dishes I have no interest in cooking, and it's like sitting with a bucket in front of a tap, hoping there will be water supply today. Silence. Silence. Choke. Splutter. Choke. Splutter. Sound of throat/pipe clearing. Splutter. Spit. Gush. Choke. Pause. Flow. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

The toxic temptations of patriarchy

A few months ago, I set up office on my hotel bed, with the television for company. Rajshri’s ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ was on, a film I had first watched ages ago on a scratchy video print in Oregon, unable to tell who was getting engaged or married to whom. I have since “watched” the film now and then, usually in the background. It’s an easy watch. It’s an easy film. And it seems to me it’s an easy life.

Take the plot. One couple. Three sons. One daughter, dutifully married off early. Sons romance and get married in the course of the film. Daughters-in-law are essentially waiting in the wings, able and willing to make perfect tea, perfect laddoos, perfect halva or whatever. Even the doctor only seems to have studied medicine in order to administer medicines on a timely basis to family elders. Everyone is well-fed, well-groomed, well-loved, smiling and at leisure to sing and dance and entertain when they want. There is conflict but its source is also patriarchal—whose son should be the main heir to the family property (which is actually plentiful).

I enjoy watching this film as I bend over reports and academic writing on conflict, sexual violence, injustice and politics. In a messy, horrid world, it’s the relaxing pleasure of passing your hand over a crumpled bedsheet and watching the wrinkles smoothen out. I have enjoyed the film, sometimes watching from the middle, many times before.  

But this last time, I thought: why did some of us make choices that make our lives so difficult? It could have been this easy. I look at ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ and think of how simple life could have been. This is not to say that joint families don’t hold challenges and that real women working full-time in real households don’t work extremely hard. But if I just accepted patriarchy lock, stock and barrel, maybe I would not notice, and therefore, would see only the good parts. As I grow older and tired, the art direction, the endless tea and the smiling people beckon to me. Almost.

Unfortunately, I know that outside of the movies, the chiffon sarees wrap around a lifetime of emotional and physical abuse for many women. I know that women in patriarchal households (and most of ours are) work longer hours than anyone should, all for the convenience of others who could well take care of themselves. All their jewellery and comforts dress up the reality of economic dependence which confines them to a certain domestic universe and limits their real choices. I know that even within patriarchy, most women do not inhabit this world but that almost all of them ‘service’ it in one way or another. Patriarchy also demands that women subdue their talents and hide their intelligence, that they shrink their claims to life, to space, to voice, to air, in order that the sense of entitlement it bestows upon men, remains unhindered.

Just think of the last time you sat next to a man in a cramped aircraft row, and he thought nothing of resting his elbow on the armrest, letting his legs spill into your little leg-room area. And the ads that suggest that stay-at-home mothers are less thoughtful and well-informed than their brattish (usually male) children. That’s patriarchy, too, and unlike the smiling ladies of ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain,’ I glower, not glow.

And the men. The ones who want to sing and dance but have to get real jobs. The ones that are dying to watch the puris puff up and the mysore pak form into perfect consistency. The ones who want to be friends with women rather than their stalkers and conquerors. Patriarchy has no room for them, really, does it? Nor for the men who like men and the women who like women. Patriarchy makes for a simple life because it simplifies the world into simplistic categories.

And the housework! I have long held that the cruellest twist of patriarchy might well be the expectation that women should do and enjoy doing housework. Nothing else can grind down the human spirit as efficiently as the day-in-day-out housework (and this is why cheerful homemakers deserve both respect and compassion), that the endless tea and besan ke laddoo and sumptuous thalis involve.

On television serials, patriarchy creates a zero-sum situation between male and female protagonists. When the hero is wonderful, the women around him just cry and simper and seduce. The heroine can only shine at the expense of the hero—patriarchy is inverted, with the heroine taking pot-shots or lecturing at the hero who loves her so much he doesn’t care. Where have we seen this before?

But still, I am sometimes weary enough I do think: would my life have been much easier if I had gone with the flow, not asked any questions, not found small and large battles to fight at every turn, deferred and submitted? If I had got married at 20? Had all my children, preferably boys, by 24? Not had or cultivated interests outside my family? “Got” my children married at 20, in turn, been enjoying grandchildren by now? Essentially been free at this age to be relaxed about things. Maybe. And popular culture would not be a mined landscape of infuriating ideas and images. Going with the flow conserves so much energy, and that sounds very good these days.

It might have been simpler in some ways. But it would not have been my life, would it? The easy road would have led to a certain kind of hell and the indulgences of patriarchy been a slow-working poison. And how can one not see the iniquities, the injustices and the violence? And when one does see, how is one to ignore them?

Patriarchy is fine in small cinematic doses, administered as sound and light and beauty in the background of real life. That’s quite enough. More than enough. Thank you. 

And yes, my petition to end it is still in the queue, and still holds good. Can we have the adrak chai, the laddoos, the chiffons and music, the love and the happiness, without the patriarchy, please? And equality without exhaustion.