It is seldom that you come across a news story that shocks your system. Stories that carry tales of such horror are splashed across screens across the globe. Some stories though lie buried in dusty archives. One such story is that of a hysterectomy racket operating in the Beed district of Maharashtra where women working on sugarcane plantation are forced to remove their uterus.
Before you call this piece a plug let me be forthcoming about how I came to learn about the issue. As I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw a CNN News 18 clip on the issue. Upon watching the clip, the crew and cast of the Marathi film ‘Bittersweet’ were promoting their film based on the issue. And that was my entry point.
The Beed district of Maharashtra is situated in the sugarcane belt of the state. Being one of the leading producers of sugarcane, the cultivation of the crop is spread across a huge tract of land. It is spread over an area covering 9.4 lakh hectares with a yield of 61.32 million tonnes. Harvesting such a large area requires a lot of manpower.
This sector of the informal economy employs landless labour for the activity of cane cutting. Families earn their yearly livelihood being employed as labour during the harvest season. As the activity requires intensive manual labour, workers are forced to live in the fields or in tents in the sugar mills. They do not receive basic amenities during their stay.
The contractors and the mill owners that sell this produce after value addition provide sub par work conditions. In 2016, the Deccan Chronicle reported on how the women workers faced rape and abuse by the landlords and middlemen. The report also commented on how women are forced to undergo sterilisation or hysterectomy to be able to work in the fields.
The doctors in the neighbouring villages and towns are alleged to be in cahoots with the supervisors, landlords and the middlemen. The nexus of the doctor-landlord-middlemen preyed on the poverty and lack of educational qualification of these people. Women were the target of this nefarious scheme.
The women were targeted due to their menstrual cycle. During the period of menstruation, women workers involved in the labour intensive activity of cane cutting felt the need to be away from work. The contractors did not allow this request. They felt it robbed them of labour to meet the quotas set for them. As a result, women were fleeced to have their wombs removed. So that it did not hinder their work.
Menstruation affects the work and thus hysterectomy is incentivised, enabling the woman to be able work without missing a day. If one of the spouse takes a day off, the couple has to pay a fine of rupees 500 per day. Menstruation is an involuntary biological process. So when the woman misses 4-5 days of work, the couple have shell out rupees 2000 as fine.
The paltry sum they receive for their work ensures that all their earning vanishes with the fine. The contractors or middle men pay the couple a sum of rupees 250 per tonne of sugarcane they cut. And as alleged by some of the women, the money for the hysterectomy is given by the contractor and is cut from their wages.
The activity of cane of cutting is spread of a period of few months. The money the couple make over this period cutting a few hundreds of tonnes of cane is mostly spent on the surgery and medical expenses that come post the surgery. Being the only source of employment, the circumstances make earning a livelihood difficult.
Just like a patient receiving a transplant who has to make regular visits to the hospital, a hysterectomy patient has medical needs and needs. But these women do not get that rest as they have to work for their families. This brings in as many comorbidities as possible and inflates medical bills.
This modern day exploitation of women is a common story in the villages of Beed. Families also pressurise women to get hysterectomy done. With the activity of cane cutting being the only means of livelihood, the family cannot lose out on income due to the menstrual period. This existing social reality pushes the women into the ambit of scrupulous doctors.
The doctors exploit the socio-economic reality of Beed and deliberately push women into the getting the operation done. The women are sold myths and exploited. They are made to believe that removing the uterus will ensure they do not get cancer. Even if women go through a difficult pregnancy, they are convinced that the symptoms they are having relates to other health issues. Women are convinced to have their uterus removed to stay safe and stay healthy.
But accounts of women narrate their ordeal after their hysterectomy. The Hindu reported one such account. A woman in her twenties narrated her story to the publication. While the women did not experience menstrual pains and cramps anymore, it took a toll on her physical health. She suffered infections resulting from the procedure.
The amount received from the contractor or the middleman to remove the uterus has landed her family in debt. The rising cost of medicines raises costs and debt. With her health not co-operating she is not being paid wages. This increases the burden on the family resources. And the family is now blaming the woman for the misfortune that befell them.
The procedure touted as the solution for the poverty alleviation has driven families into debt. The financial aspect is just half the story. Apart from working in inhumane conditions, women workers have to face harassment, abuse and rape to make ends meet. This is a price no one should pay for just wanting to work to earn money for their family.
The story of the hysterectomy racket is a harsh jolt to the conscience. As the realities of rural life are harsher than the urban life, the life is also harsher. But the phenomenon is not uncommon in urban cities. It is just more subtle.
Women working in corporate sector are discouraged to have children. Companies are reluctant to pay female employees during maternity leave and hence put pressure on them to resign. It is all about saving costs. Be it hysterectomy racket in Beed or the pink slips to women who want to bear children, the issue is the same. The issue of exploitation and control of the female and her body through different means.