I read an article about women working in sugarcane fields in the Beed district of Maharashtra, who are pressurised into having hysterectomies in order to work. They are compelled into having their uterus surgically removed in order to be able to work and survive. As per the sources, a woman who menstruates in this district is not hired by any of the contractors for cane-cutting because as per them, “period [cyle] is the hindrance in the way of work”.
We all are very much aware of the paradox of the menstrual taboo present in India. Menstruating women are considered ‘impure’ in our country and they are also excluded from many cultural events and settings. Instead of accepting the fact that the menstrual cycle is a natural process innately linked with a female body, our society still considers it a taboo and is afraid to talk about it openly because awareness related to it is still limited – despite the availability of numerous informative resources.
The stigma of menstruation continues in many forms, one of which is thousands of young women being compelled to have hysterectomies so that they no longer have their periods. They actually have to undergo a surgical procedure to remove their uterus – in the past three years in the state of Maharashtra. Every year, thousands of economically vulnerable families from the Beed, Osmanabad, Sangli and Solapur districts migrate to work for six months as cane cutters in sugarcane fields.
If the husband or wife take a break for a day – the couple – since they have been categorised as one unit, has to pay a fine of ₹500 per day to the contractor for every break.
The contractors hire both husband and wife and count them as one unit. Cane cutting is a stringent process and the workers are not allowed any breaks at all. So, if the husband or wife take a break for a day – the couple – since they have been categorised as one unit, has to pay a fine of ₹500 per day to the contractor for every break.
The contractors were initially hesitant to hire women as cane-cutting is a stringent process and requires hard work and they thought that women may miss a day or two of working due to their periods, and if it happens – they have to pay a penalty. But after a hysterectomy, there is no possibility of the period cycle and that means there will be no breaks during cane cutting in the fields.
Satyabhama, one of the cane-cutters, said that she cannot afford to lose a single rupee and due to periods, the work is halted. Dada Patil, one of the contractors, said that “we are hired as a contractor and have a target to complete in a limited timeframe and that’s why we do not want women who would have periods during cane-cutting”. The contractor also mentioned that he and other contractors never force the women to have surgery. It is a ‘choice’ made by every individual and their families. But the thing here is, not directly ordering them to have hysterectomies doesn’t intimate that the merciless and exploitative contractors don’t have a say in the compulsion placed on women to go through with the procedure.
Bandu Ugale, Satyabhama’s husband and a cane cutter himself, explains the ‘logic’ behind the practice – “A couple gets about ₹250 after cutting a tonne of sugarcane. In a day, we cut about 3-4 tonnes of cane and in an entire season of 4-5 months a couple cuts about 300 tonnes of sugarcane. What we earn during the season is our yearly income as we don’t get any work after we come back from cane cutting… We can’t afford to take a break, even for a day. We have to work even if we have health problems. There is no rest and women having periods is an additional problem”.
Doctors also encourage them to go through with hysterectomies whenever they consult them.
Due to poor hygienic conditions, the women catch many infections and activists working in the region say that doctors also encourage them to go through with hysterectomies whenever they consult them – even if they can easily be treated with medicines. The women in this region are married off young, they become mothers of two or three children by the time they are in their mid-20s and when doctors do not tell them about the problems they would face, they simply choose the hysterectomy.
Many women workers think that it is okay to have a hysterectomy because they are taught to believe the same. But at the same time, the workers are left with no option as the living conditions at their workplace are inadequate and very far from ideal. They live in huts or tents nearer to the fields. At their workplace, there are no toilets, they do not even have a fixed time for sleeping or waking. Just imagine how difficult it must be for women to go through this situation when they get their periods. In addition, the women workers claimed that the contactors also give them an advance amount for the surgery and that money is later recovered from their wages.
To conclude it is also necessary to address this term ‘womb-less’ that is attributed to women who are forced into hysterectomies. The words ‘wombless+women+India’ generates multiple articles that address women in these dehumanising terms. It is important to acknowledge that women are more than just their wombs. In addition, it is crucial that we remember that the term ‘womb-less’ dissolves all responsibility and accountability from those who do compel women to have hysterectomies – and make the women workers seem like they are passive and without agency.
Featured image used for representative purpose only. Image source: Newsclick