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The Under-nourished Backbone of Rural India


Recently an ad on water conservation projects suggested how a middle aged woman in a village who used to walk long distances for water now could afford to use her free time to walk for fitness instead. Though work and health wise, this woman might have benefited immensely from this particular project, the situation of most women across rural India tells us a different story.

Once, while shooting for a short film on one of our projects in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, our team landed up in the village in the wee hours of the morning. The idea was to shoot the village waking up and starting their daily life. While my team went around getting their shots, I stood and noticed the people of the village. The women started their day by cleaning the house, fetched water from the well, got their children ready, fetched fuel for cooking, tended to their animals, collected manure, went to their farms to work, cooked food, attended meetings if any, worked at the nursery, washed clothes and utensils and attended to their husband’s and children’s needs. They went to sleep the last and got up first in the morning. The men, however, just sat at the village square and gossiped. More often than not, women also would end up getting beaten by their husbands, sometime on little issues like less salt in the food. This scene does not change much in villages across India. In fact it worsens in the mountain states where women have to walk long distances in difficult terrain everyday to get firewood and in states like Rajasthan where caste discriminations force women of lower castes to sometimes walk more than seven kilometers one way to fetch water as they are not allowed to take water from wells frequented by women of higher castes.

NFHS3 (National Family Health Survey) data shows that 58% of ever married women in rural India between the age of 15-49 years are anemic, 39% of women in rural India are under-nourished and the median age of marriage for women is still as low as 16.8years. It’s also a shame that even now the MMR (Maternal Mortality Ratio) in India is one of the highest in the world with 178 deaths (SRS 2013) during childbirth and pregnancy. And these are an all-states average data. In ‘tribal’ states, the average weight of both women and men is much lower than the national average. In Bilaspur district of Chhattisgarh, I have seen women who are reed thin weighing just around 35kgs. Their health condition was so poor that one could never guess their age.

Girls in Rajasthan help in household work from an early age

Deeply entrenched gender norms and socio-cultural practices ensure that women in rural India are over-worked, under-nourished, have limited access to healthcare and even with access to healthcare, tend to neglect their health requirements. These societal norms create a kind of domino effect in the life of these women. Neglect of the girl-child in general, early marriage leading to early pregnancy, under-nourished mother giving birth to an under-nourished baby, chronic anemia, lack of proper post natal care which means that the woman continues to suffer from chronic poor maternal health, and continual household and farm work which does not allow her to gain back her health at all. And this cycle tends to continue reflecting in the health of the next generation. As per NFHS3, 72% of children in rural India between the ages of 6-59 months are anemic. 54% of children under the age of five years are malnourished, which is the main contributing factor for deaths amongst children.

Under National Rural Health Mission (2005), the government has launched various schemes targeted at improving the health of women and children by providing them with access to healthcare at hand. But like most good flagship schemes and missions, NRHM also lags behind in proper implementation and raising awareness about its provisions to the people whom it’s meant for. Getting the government machinery to function properly, creating awareness about the health and nutritional needs of women, and changing the mindset of the community by including men in household chores and health requirements of the entire family are some of the ways by which women can improve their immediate health condition and perhaps even get some time for leisure.

A farmer in a village in Tehri Garwal district of Uttarakhand told me that women are the backbone of his mountain community. After traveling to many villages across the length and the breadth of the country and observing the labour-intensive work done by women, I have now come to firmly believe that they, though under-nourished, are the real backbone of rural India.