Double Victims of Latur Earthquake NIRU ACHARYA This paper deals with...
Double Victims of Latur Earthquake
This paper deals with the invisibility of gender dimension in the relief and
rehabilitation process. It highlights the way an unthoughtful rehabilitation inter-
vention strengthens patriarchy and subjects women to physical and mental pain.
Here, the focus is on the use of a pervasive medical technology, recanalisation,
with a plea to preserve the social fabric, but which makes women mere 'tubes and
Ms. Niru Acharya is Lecturer, Acharya Maralhe Degree College, Mumbai, and
is concerned with issues of gender and development.
Rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) after a natural disaster is a long
and trying process of human adjustment for any community. So far,
the main concern of the state authorities during the interim period, has
been to cater to the basic needs of the people living in transit camps.
The survivors, on their part, make attempts to restore the physical,
social and economic equilibria for sustaining the societal system. This
results in a range of social dynamics between relationships that go
unnoticed. Power is pronounced and behaviours are shaped according
to felt needs, and in the process, those who control resources emerge
as victors. The way in which gender inequalities are explicitly articu-
lated is critical.
In September 1993, the Latur and Osmanabad districts in the
Marathwada region of Maharashtra were hit by a ruinous earthquake.
The aid and cash that flowed in helped the victims to recoup from the
initial trauma. However, the agents involved did not aim at bringing
changes in the existing societal structures, and as a consequence, the
edifices of polarised and patriarchal society remained.
The demographic changes due to the deaths were perceived and
responded to according to the said persistent patriarchal norms. Wid-
ower remarriage was accepted and viewed as desirable, while widow
Double Victims of Latur Earthquake
remarriage was considered undesirable. Families who had lost their
sons were seen as dual victims compared to those who had lost their
daughters. The grief and empathy was not gender neutral; more the
male deaths in the family, more the empathy and grief.
While people grappled to adjust, patriarchy, in its characteristic
style, did not succumb to the course of natural events. Instead, it
expressed itself vehemently, and was strengthened with the pervasive
use of medical technology that made women mere 'wombs and tubes'.
Recanalisation1 ensured initial rehabilitation efforts. To mask their
vested interests, a few zealous 'social rehabilitators' attempted to
reverse the fertility behaviour of those women who, in the past, had
adopted family planning measures to curtail their family size, but had
lost their (male) offspring(s) during the earthquake. The plea of the
social rehabilitators was to save marriages, preserve the social fabric
and reestablish the initial social order.
Recanalisation is an accepted clinical method in medical circles.
However, before attempting operations, doctors establish a few pa-
rameters, like the age and present health status of the woman, time
elapsed after sterilisation, and the type and anatomic location of the
tubectomy performed, for it to be a success. The doctors also state that
it is not a simple operation as it is to be conducted by a gynaecologist
under general or spinal anaesthesia. It involves making an incision of
four inches and 8-10 sutures are made to cover the wound, and it takes
about an hour to perform the operation. Medical professionals do not
rule out complications and prolonged morbidity if after care is ne-
glected. While the mortality rate is low, the risk of life due to tubal
pregnancy is high. Clinical research gives a 60:40 success rate to
conceive, but does not guarantee a male child.
Government hospitals do not encourage recanalisation since it goes
against the ideology of family planning. The cost of such an operation
in a private clinic ranges anywhere between Rs. 5,000-10,000.
RECANALISATION IN LATUR
In March-April 1994, six months after the earthquake, 40 women were
operated for recanalisation in a private hospital at Latin- in batches of
7-12 women. Each batch was discharged after 8-10 days when the
exterior sutures were removed. All women underwent routine medical
examination before the operation, though it is not clear whether all the
women qualified on all the parameters.
560 Niru Acharya
Villagers estimate that around 100-150 women were operated
upon. Other than the stated 40, the rest were operated at private clinics.
The first few operations were done free of cost, and once they had
established practice, patients were charged a fee.
The doctors and the health services system have been oblivious to
the high morbidity and health problems prevailing among these
women today: the constant suffering from body aches and backaches,
fever, irregular menstrual cycle, swelling over the uterus, anaemia and
several other problems. Savitri,2 a woman from Sastur, had to undergo
a hysterectomy, due to tubal pregnancy after recanalisation.
The women were not aware of the gravity of the operation. They
were given no information about it. Most of them thought that it was
a simple process like the tubectomy performed earlier. Today, many
feel scared when they realise the seriousness of the operation and its
long-term implications on their health. The doctors operated indis-
criminately upon these women without taking the age factor into
consideration, for this is directly related to the risk of abnormality in
the new born. One is provoked into assessing the degree of violation
to a person's body, by holding back information from the person whose
life is at risk.
The 40 women who were operated upon at the said hospital in Latur,
belong to the villages of Killari, Mangrul, Rajegaon, Pet Sangvi, Talni,
Nandurg, and Sastur. They were in the age group of 25-42 years.4 A
local doctor with an LMP qualification of Killari village, along with a
few volunteers, visited the villages close to the state highway. They
went from house to house searching for those who had lost their
children in the earthquake to convince them about the validity of the
operation. In Talni, the doctor took the Panchayat
into confidence and
the operation was openly announced in the village. In cases where
either the couples or the family showed some reluctance towards the
operation, the doctor made efforts to convince them. For instance, in
Mangrul village, one woman's father-in-law, considering the poor
health of the woman, was not in favour of the operation. Medical
investigations also ruled out its feasibility. However, the local doctor
convinced the woman's husband that they could have a child after the
operation. The operation was, hence, performed.
The marketing strategy of the technology assured the people that
recanalisation as an operation was probably the surest way to conceive
and to have sons. What lured people into having the operation was that
it was performed free of cost. Free transport was provided for the
Double Victims of Latur Earthquake
woman who were to be operated upon. People had to only pay for their
meals and their personal expenses. A local doctor stated, 'We provided
them a chance to have a son'. The commercialisation of wombs
escalated hopes for a (male) child. What is tragic is that hopes were
raised even for those women who had a mutilated fimbrian or had lost
one tube, all due to the callous attitude of doctors who had not cared
to see the state of the extant anatomy of the patients.6
RECANALISATION AND PATRIARCHY: AFTER ONE
The typical odyssey of oppression of these women began with the
elevated hopes (due to technology) to meet the social dictates of
patriarchy. It was discomforting to comprehend the way a woman's
body was completely delinked from her subjectivity. In these societies,
the institution of marriage determined the reproductive behaviour,
which in turn promoted women's status, patriarchal heritage and
family lineage. Family members, peer groups and natal family mem-
bers of the women, all influenced the women to opt for the operations.
The desire to have a patriarchal lineage cuts across caste, education,
socioeconomic status and even age. A 58-year old retired school teacher,
had a grandson. In the quest to have a son, he forced his 42-year-old wife
to opt for the operation. Families, were willing to borrow money or take
loans on the compensation cheques or even sell their crops in order to
have an operation performed. Almost all women, though scared, opted
for the operation with a fatalistic attitude. '...We have lost everything in
the earthquake... if we have to die we will...' 'I was scared but there are
no choices...' The agents of social rehabilitation preyed on these helpless
women by advertising technology to their advantage.
Women who underwent the operation became 'objects of reproduc-
tion' for society. The whole society began to look for signs of preg-
nancy in these women. The bodies of women ceased to be in their
private realm, instead they were public commodities. Laxmibai, like
many others, was humiliated by the people in her community, for her
incapacity to conceive again. The women have realised that their plight
will not end with one pregnancy, for they have in store a set of
(prospective) pregnancies, till the right product — a male child — is
delivered. This has reduced women to (male) child producing ma-
Technology had promised to provide an old age security in the name
of children, and in turn, save marriages. Neither of the promises holds
562 Niru Acharya
true in most cases. Instead, constant stress and disharmony prevail in
the lives of couples who have used a considerable part of their
resources for the operations. The pervasive apathy and complicity
towards these women's lives and health by society and family, coupled
with their inability to reproduce has robbed them of their dignity. In
the bargain, they have become double victims of a natural disaster.
There are many like Shamalbai from Mangrul who persistently suffers
from a number of physical ailments after the operation. The NGOs,
the doctor who had initiated the operations and health functionaries
are insensitive towards their health. In addition, the depletion of family
resources has reduced access to health care and, hence, aggravated the
morbidity among them.
Husbands have waited anxiously and impatiently the desired prod-
uct that is, the male child. Threats and plans for remarriage are made
in the absence of any signs of pregnancy, placing women under
constant duress. One woman stated, 'As the date of menses ap-
proaches, I wait and hope to miss my periods, for it would mean that
I have conceived. But, when I get them, I feel helpless once again.'
Another woman stated, 'When I came out of the debris it was my
second birth, I died once again after the operation, as in spite of it,
I am not able to conceive... the expectations have been raised in
vain... my life is meaningless now... my husband is remarrying since
I have not conceived in the last one year.'
Men can negotiate exchanges that are favourable to them. The
bargaining position of women is different: they have to keep in view
their own vulnerability and welfare besides the overall welfare of their
family. Their choices and decisions are shaped within a network of
social relationships. The threat of remarriage by their husbands under-
mines their self-worth and dignity as they know that their choices will
find no social support.
Women who have resigned themselves to their husbands' remar-
riage go through compounded trauma and depression: one of loss of
children followed by a break of a relationship. Chandrakala, Laxmibai
and a few others, have given consent to their husbands to remarry, but
are going through a traumatic phase. They show signs of depression:
sleepless nights, loss of appetite, dryness of mouth, self-blame, lack of
concentration or interest in any kind of activity.
In my whole survey, I met only one woman who was confident of
her husband not remarrying. She showed a marked difference in her
physical and psychological condition from the others who were
Double Victims of Latur Earthquake
experiencing constant threat of remarriage from their husbands. She
alone exhibited strength and confidence.
Some among those who have not been able to cope with the pressure
to reproduce or the threat of break up of marriage, show signs of
pseudo-pregnancy. Suman from Mangrul, 35 years of age, claims that
she is four months pregnant. She complains of staining and irregular
periods. Her biggest worry is the slow growth of the foetus. The tests
of pregnancy are negative; yet the belief continues. Nearly all these
women are experiencing abnormal menstrual cycles after the opera-
tion. However, these women consider the irregular periods as signs of
miscarriage. Their 'solace' is that at least they have conceived.
Sheer frustration and helplessness is not uncommon in most women
who have not conceived. They feel that their physical agony is under-
mined both by the society and their families. They express anger
towards the doctor. For them, it is he who had raised hopes which
provoked the families to seek an option for patriarchal lineage. They
had otherwise resigned to fate and destiny.
The R&R processes are not merely reconstruction of houses and
villages. Tragedies are mainly human and an imaginative R&R policy
could aim at transforming the social relations, whether they are related
to land, caste or gender. Societies which are otherwise inequitous and
static, need a major 'culture shock' therapy, which can best come from
without. Presently, there are a large number of schemes within the
R&R framework that envelop economic, social and engineering di-
mensions. The class-gender dimension cuts across all these but only
the class issues are, as yet, to an extent recognised. The invisibility of
the gender dimension has a powerful impact too, as has been illustrated
in this paper.
1. Recaruilisation refers to a medical operation performed on a woman who has had
a tubectomy done to prevent pregnancy.
2. None of the names are real. Fictitious names have been used to maintain confi-
3. Clinical research suggests that children born to mothers of 35+ years have a greater
risk of being abnormal.
4. The researchers met women who hailed from these villages only.
564 Niru Acharya
5. Fortunately for this family, this woman alone has successfully given birth to a
6. The local doctor maintained that they kept the family and women ignorant of this
medical information because it would have shattered them psychologically. A few
families realised it when they visited other doctors because they had not con-