ln the hope for a boy Woman agrees for tubectomy after having 15 girlsAnisha Sheth (Image for representation only)
news Reproductive Rights Tuesday, June 16, 2015 - 05:30

Sethanibai Rathod is likely to become a statistic in the Karnataka government’s sterilisation targets achieved for this year. She has agreed to undergo a tubectomy.

Two days ago, Sethanibai of Sindhol tanda in Bidar district became known as "pandrah bacchon ki maa" - the woman with 15 children - after the media reported her story. But all 15 of her children are girls, but not all lived. Six died in infancy, three daughters are married and the rest are working or go with her when she works. None of them have gone to a school.

Sethanibai left the last baby girl at the district hospital, because she did not want to look after yet another child. She told The Hindu that she would have found a way if it was a boy. Now that the incident is news, the district Women and Child Development department appears to have been galvanised into action.

Deputy Director of the Women and Child Development department PS Itagampalli said that they had convinced her to undergo a tubectomy so that she would not have more children. “She is less than 45 years old, and has had 15 children,” he said, when asked why they asked her to undergo a tubectomy.

Sethanibai says she will go through with the operation as things are “unbearable” for her. “I am poor, I earn Rs 50 a day, and I have so many children… Everybody wants a boy, my daughters too feel they want a brother, my brother-in-law also has only one son. Is liye main bete ki aas me giri… lekin ab bardasht nahi hota. (That is why I desired a boy… But I can’t bear this any longer.)”

Sterilisation procedures are carried out under central government family planning programmes. Public Health Researcher with Karnataka Janarogya Chaluvali Akhila Vasan says that these are disproportionately aimed at and imposed on women directly and indirectly.

Karnataka is no different. In 2012-13, health workers were to ensure that 3,000 women of child-bearing age from each district were sterilised whereas the target for men was 12,000 for the whole state, Akhila says. They are penalised if they do not achieve these targets, she adds.

Despite this, the public health system does not appear to have reached Sethanibai, a Lambani woman. She says that no health worker visited her during her other pregnancies. She told The Hindu that she only went to the hospital to deliver the last child because she had made up her mind to leave the infant there if it was a girl. The district authorities have now put up the infant for adoption.

Sethanibai’s husband Govardhan Rathod who works in Mumbai had stopped talking to her. She told The Hindu: “After my last delivery, I called him on his mobile phone. But he disconnected the call and has not called back till now.”

Sethanibai belongs to the Lambani or Banjara community, which is understood to have migrated from western India, most likely Rajasthan. Although the government of Karnataka has classified them as a Scheduled Caste, the community is actually a tribe.

At some point in history, the community was nomadic, but have settled in various parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra for several generations. Despite living close to urban settlements for their livelihood, the community has largely preserved its own lifestyle.

According to former Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission chairperson CS Dwarkanath, gender relations in tribal communities are more equitable and that preference for a male child was likely to be recent phenomenon because the community lived close to towns where they would be exposed to the practices of other communities.

However, B T Lalitha Naik, a Lambani woman, says that the preference for a son was very high in her community. “There are songs in Lambani vaath (Lambani language) about this,” she says, adding that when a boy was born, a type of metal plate was banged (almost sounding like a temple bell). “It was a horn of victory, but when a girl was born, a type of earthen vessel was broken with a stick,” she says.

But Naik is an example of a curious pattern in the Lambani community. A former minister in the Karnataka cabinet, she is one of the small number of people who have escaped the extreme poverty that is still a reality for many of the community.

Social mobility for the individual has not translated into social mobility for the community, and neither has the individual politician meant that the community is politically aware, says Dwarkanath.

In Sethanibai’s case, these factors – her gender, community, and class – have shaped the course her life has taken.

Over the years, health workers and researchers have noticed that in forward communities, and even in upper class families of backward communities, the youngest child, often the third, would be a boy. This was because they had the education and means to determine the sex of the child beforehand and get an abortion if it was a girl. This pattern has been observed not just in Karnataka, but also elsewhere in the country.

Naik says: “Some laws have the effect of being convenient for some people, and turning out to be thorns for others. The government should allow sex detection tests when couples have already had two girls, because it will take a very long time for Indian people to get the son-preference out of their heads. At least then, women do not have to keeping having children,” she says.

However, Akhila is skeptical of reproductive technologies. “They feed into prevalent gender norms of the preference for male heirs. It has not liberated women in anyway, when they still do not have the freedom to space children, or decide when to have them or how many,” she says.

She was also scathing of the government’s standard argument that it was better that women be sterilised because men suspect them of infidelity in the event of failure. “You’ve had 60 years to try (and deal with gender bias). But you’ve never engaged with men. You’re scared of men because they’re powerful. So you bully the women. What are they, cattle? You think you can herd them to sterilszation camps like goats and sheep?” she said.

In the past, the government had Male Multi-purpose Workers (MMWs) who dealt with men. Pointing out that anganwadi workers and ANMs were all women, she asked: “Who’s going to talk to the men?”