A different kind of motherhood

Now that we have finished with our commercially-dictated tributes to mothers and motherhood - May 13 was 'Mother's Day' - it is time to look at the real situation of mothers in our country. Mothers cannot live only on yearly declarations of love. Their families as well as public servants need to be more accountable to their well-being. India has a rich tradition of worshipping 'mothers', so rich that we even venerate another species. It is worth exploring how this worship translates into the lived experiences of mothers in India.

By Alaka M. Basu
  • Published 20.06.18
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Now that we have finished with our commercially-dictated tributes to mothers and motherhood - May 13 was 'Mother's Day' - it is time to look at the real situation of mothers in our country. Mothers cannot live only on yearly declarations of love. Their families as well as public servants need to be more accountable to their well-being. India has a rich tradition of worshipping 'mothers', so rich that we even venerate another species. It is worth exploring how this worship translates into the lived experiences of mothers in India.

One can do this exercise in many ways - look at trends over time in some of the traits concerning motherhood; compare India to other countries, near and far; or look at differentials within India itself on the lines of region, class, caste or religion. For the moment, I will stick to two forms of comparison. The first comparison is between India and a neighbour - Sri Lanka, a country that has seen its own share of turmoil and sadness but is now hobbling back towards some of its former developmental glory.

The second comparison is internal. I look at two states - Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. They make for an interesting comparison as representatives of the much-discussed North -South divide in India. But they are also interesting for more topical reasons: Karnataka has recently emerged from an election in which the star campaigners from the losing side are a leader and an elected representative from the districts of Gorakhpur and Varanasi, respectively. For good measure, I will also throw in a comparative reference to another state, Gujarat, because one of the campaigners hails from there, as does another undisputed influencer of political events in Karnataka and the country as a whole.

Are Indian mothers better off than Sri Lankan mothers? How far can UP and Gujarat justify their claim that development has important lessons for Karnataka? Should mothers now be urging the government of Karnataka to make the state resemble Uttar Pradesh?

Before we comment on the lives of mothers, we need to look at some statistics on survival itself: women need to be alive to become mothers and survive pregnancy and delivery to experience motherhood. The life expectancy of women in India stands at 70 years today, compared to 75 in Sri Lanka; in Karnataka, it is 72, compared to 65 in UP (and 71 in Gujarat). For the maternal mortality ratio (the number of women dying due to complications during pregnancy or delivery for every 100,000 babies born), the numbers are 130 for India and 37 for Sri Lanka; 108 for Karnataka and 201 for UP.

Let us go even further back - to the time of the births of these women. Thanks to entrenched son preference and the ready availability of sex determination and abortion technology, in India the sex ratio at birth is 919 females for every 1000 males, compared to 962 for Sri Lanka. According to Niti Aayog, the SRB in Karnataka in 2013 was 939; in UP it was 879, and in Gujarat it was 854.

Much as we venerate mothers and motherhood, a commitment to women's autonomy demands that we let women decide for themselves when, with whom, and how many children to have, as well as give them the right to forego childbearing altogether. Data on such personal choices are hard to come by, but we do have some cues. For example, the contraceptive prevalence rate in Sri Lanka in 2007 (we do not have more recent figures) was 68 per cent and the unmet need for contraception (women who were sexually active, did not wish to become pregnant, and were still not using birth control) was 7 per cent. Much more recently, (in 2012-13), the CPRs for India, Karnataka and UP were 54 per cent, 52 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively. At this same time, the unmet need in India, Karnataka and UP was 13 per cent, 10 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively. Fertility rates are similarly dispersed: India 2.2, Sri Lanka 2; Karnataka 1.8, UP 2.7.

We know nothing about differences in involuntary childlessness, which can be emotionally and economically debilitating in a culture that valorizes sons. We know even less about the availability of services to help women who want to conceive but cannot. We also have only anecdotal evidence of the ease with which women can choose sexual partners to father their children. Sri Lankan women seem to have much greater freedom in this regard even though these freedoms may have been eroded during the civil war.

Other statistics on women's maternal lives are not inspiring: 23 per cent of Indian women have a body mass index that is below normal (Karnataka 21 per cent; UP 25 per cent); 53 per cent of Indian women are anaemic (Karnataka 45 per cent; UP 51 per cent); 58 per cent of Indian women use hygienic protection during menstruation (Karnataka 70 per cent; UP 47 per cent); 29 per cent of Indian women have experienced spousal violence (Karnataka 21 per cent; UP 37 per cent).

What is evident is that Sri Lanka has left India far behind and whatever advantage the mothers of Karnataka have over UP will have to be jealously guarded.