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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Trauma of tsunami continues for these women

A LUCKY FEW: A file photo of four fisherwomen of Keechankuppam and Akkaraipettai coastal hamlets in Nagapattinam who gave birth to babies after recanalisation surgery. Photo: Special Arrangement

They have not only lost their children in the tragedy but also failed to benefit from recanalisation surgery

In the fishing village of Tharangambadi in Nagapattinam, five women entered into a ‘pact' that they will not agree to the remarriage of their husbands. These women had lost their children in the tsunami of December 2004.

But, their solidarity fizzled out in the face of domestic pressure. One of them committed suicide, leaving behind two teenage daughters, unable to reconcile to the death of her two sons. Selvi succumbed to her inability to give birth to sons again and equally driven by her husband's wish to remarry.

Of the many traumatic consequences of the 2004 tsunami, a community of mothers-in-waiting was just another. They are women who lost all or some of their children in the tsunami, and could no more conceive as they had undergone sterilisation (tubectomy) prior to the disaster.

The government intervened within days, and came up with a scheme to sponsor sterilization-reversal surgeries in government and notified private hospitals to enable them to conceive again.

Seven years on, of the 67 recorded cases of recanalisation surgery, only 13 women have conceived, placing the success rate at 19 percent, says an independent micro-study by SNEHA, a district based women's research organisation. The study – on the implications of recanalisation surgery on reproductive and sexual health rights of women in post-tsunami Nagapattinam – speaks of an intervention that reinforced patriarchal tendencies, providing no voice for women.

Recanalisation surgery in the aftermath of tsunami was seen as a “socio-psychological support at that point and an intelligent solution” for the grieving families, but the view was contested by researchers and activists. “Our question was whether women could decide under trauma, whether their choices were informed or if they had a choice at all. We tried to locate the entire vulnerability of women back to the family planning policy,” says Beulah Azariah, an independent researcher. Both the State and non-State actors focus on women, not exploring other possibilities, says Ms. Azariah.

The intervention also spawned a spate of private fertility clinics that profiteered on the promise of ‘motherhood' across affected districts. “Women's bodies became a site of commercialization for private clinics and families spent a major chunk of death compensation on these private fertility clinics,” says Ms. Azariah.

Today, their concerns hold ground in the face of a community of ‘recanalised women', all from the fishing community, living with a sense of ‘failure' and ‘inadequacy'. For the 12 women interviewed by The Hindu, the decision to undergo recanalisation was not based on information and counselling, but was made out of desperation and on the euphoria generated by the first conception towards end of 2005. In their midst are those rendered destitute by husbands who went on to remarry. Many others continue to exist within the marriage as ‘second class' women in a perpetual state of would-be-mothers.

The report based on focus group studies with the recanalised women over the past six years also revealed spousal infertility and spousal ailments that were ignored prior to the recanalisation. “While a few suffered ectopic pregnancies (an abnormal conception outside the uterus), many never conceived, and all of them were caught in a physical and psychological limbo,” says Vanaja, rights activist. These women were never given the time to mourn their loss, recover and heal.

According to Kameshwari, head of the women's health unit, Life Health Reinforcement Group, Hyderabad, who has also placed her research as part of the study, such mass scale recanalisations ignored prior factors for success. The reproductive health of the woman, technique used to anastomose (join) the tube, and the effect of sterilization on the tube determined conception.

“The site of tubal ligation, length of the fallopian tube after recanalisation, time interval between sterilization and its reversal are ignored. When these are not explored, recanalisation is not just viable and it further weakens women bodily and psychologically,” Dr.Kameshwari says.

Recanalisation, feels Dr.Kameshwari, opened up a possibility as retrograde as sex selection, with 26 percent of surgeries done after the death of a son. “Our interventions can never go beyond nature and our reproductive health policy must shift the onus from women to men through vasectomies.”

But, there are a few intrepid women that have braved multiple injustices. Kalvi - having ‘failed' to conceive and ostracized by her husband - has chosen to eke out a living as a single woman. Thirteen of those women have adopted children.

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