Why Indian women are choosing to be sterilised as climate crisis takes its toll

In western India, women are being forced to make a heartbreaking choice, Stuti Mishra reports. [Warning: This article contains subjects of a distressing and sensitive nature]

Tuesday 12 March 2024 10:25 GMT
File photo: A woman carries containers filled with drinking water in Maharashtra. Frequent droughts in the region are forcing people to leave their farms and work as labourers under unfair contracts
File photo: A woman carries containers filled with drinking water in Maharashtra. Frequent droughts in the region are forcing people to leave their farms and work as labourers under unfair contracts (AFP/Getty Images)

Jayashree Owhal, a 45-year-old cane cutter from India’s western state of Maharashtra, made a life-changing decision when the pain of her menstrual cramps became unbearable.

“I went to see a gynecologist in Beed. He suggested I should stop lifting the heavy bundles but that was the only source of income for us,” says Ms Owhal.

“So I decided to get the hysterectomy done, and get rid of this every month ‘pain and stain’.”

Ms Owhal is one of hundreds of women in the district of Beed who have been forced to make an unthinkable choice: having their wombs removed in order to earn a daily wage in gruelling work as a migrant sugarcane worker.

It is not the only horror that women have suffered. New mothers, forced to return to work in the fields with their babies, have lost them to fatal accidents.

Beed is one of the worst drought-impacted areas in India. Decreasing rainfall and rising heat, driven by the global climate crisis, have intensified conditions. The region suffered from droughts in four separate years between 2010-2019, according to government data.

This has devastated local agriculture making incomes from farms unreliable for most of Beed’s residents. For eight months every year, farming comes to a complete halt in the region due to the absence of rain.

Jayashree Owhal, a farmer working in sugarcane fields, says she carries 50kg of weight on her head and loads it into tractors
Jayashree Owhal, a farmer working in sugarcane fields, says she carries 50kg of weight on her head and loads it into tractors (IIED)

It has forced many women to leave their homes and travel to the Kolhapur district, over 240 miles (400km) away, to work in the physically demanding sugarcane industry. More than 1.5 million workers from Maharashtra state leave for sugarcane fields every year, according to government data.

Despite making up 63 per cent of the agricultural workforce in India, women remain largely invisible and marginalised within the sector, with only 12 per cent owning farm land.

In the gruelling world of field labour, exploitative contracts have made the conditions far more punishing, particularly for women’s bodies.

The labour involves arduous 12 to 16-hour shifts with husband-and-wife teams, known as Jodis, hired informally by local labour contractors, Mukkadams. Men usually cut the cane while women will tie and stack bundles. They have to bend for hours, pick up heavy cane bundles, walk for miles and mount them at risky heights.

Ms Owhal and her husband, Asaram, own four acres of rainfed-land on the outskirts of Kathawada, a village in the Beed district. But since a severe drought of 2016, they have had no water for drinking or farming.

The couple moved to Kolhapur to work in sugar cane. Ms Owhal’s role is to tie the cut cane into bundles and carry them on her head toa collection point and then load it onto tractors.

“The bundles I carry each time weigh almost 50kg (110lb). I make around 100 such trips with the bundles every day to the tractor,” says Owhal.

The demanding nature of the work takes a toll on women, particularly during their periods.

“I started bleeding very heavily while carrying the bundles in 2017. Ever since then, every month, my bleeding flow increased. This became a routine,” Owhal says.

The lack of access to proper sanitary products further exacerbates the struggle. Women resort to using Chumbal, an unclean cloth used to carry cane bundles on the head. This cloth collects pesticides, chemicals, and tiny cane particles, making it an unsuitable and painful makeshift solution during periods.

Ms Owhal says she suffered deep pain but also embarrassment, caused by staining her saree during periods while working in the fields.

“I cramped so severely. But my husband never paid attention to this issue. He said that it is a women’s problem,” she says.

Being unable to work means the loss of daily wages and also a penalty which most in Owhal’s situation cannot afford.

Beed has long been known for abnormally high number of hysterectomies. A government survey in 2018 revealed 36 per cent of women in the district had gone through the procedure.

Now, research published this week from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has discovered a direct link between climate impacts and the number of women having the procedure.

Some 253 of 423 Beed households surveyed said that they had been forced to migrate to work in the sugarcane industry. Most of these families said repeated droughts and crop failures at home were the reason.

Of the households which migrated, more than half of women (55 per cent) had undergone a hysterectomy, compared to less than a fifth from households that had stayed in Beed (17 per cent).

“In Beed district, families face a tough choice for survival due to recurring drought, water scarcity, failing crops and a crippling cycle of debt,” Ritu Bhardwaj, a principal researcher for IIED, told The Independent.

Lata Waghmare’s baby was killed after being run over by a tractor. Ms Waghmare had no option but to bring her baby when she went to work in the sugarcane fields
Lata Waghmare’s baby was killed after being run over by a tractor. Ms Waghmare had no option but to bring her baby when she went to work in the sugarcane fields (IIED)

Beyond economic hardships there is a significant personal toll, Ms Bhardwaj added, “including the loss of health and well-being due to forced labour in adverse conditions and the mental and psychological toll of undergoing procedures like hysterectomies”.

Some women told IIED that they were still in their child-bearing age when they underwent the procedure. “I delivered my second baby when I was on the sugarcane field,” Lata Waghmare, 34, told IIED researchers, who spent days collecting stories from female workers in Kolhapur.

“I was so scared of taking leave post-delivery because of the khada (leave) charges,” she says, referring to the penalty for skipping one day’s work, which is around ₹500–₹1,000 rupees (5-10 pounds).

“I got back to work five days after the delivery,” she adds.

Ms Bhardwaj says the penalties for missed work or even toilet breaks are often” 2 to 4 times what they earn working 12-16 hours a day”.

To feed her newborn baby, Ms Waghmare faced the agonising decision of bringing her child into the field.

“While carrying the cane bundles, I kept her on the floor in one corner. The tractor ran over my baby. I lost my child,” she said.

Despite the devastating and traumatic loss of a child, Ms Waghmare had no time to mourn. The looming threat of financial penalties compelled her to return to work the following day, she says. Later, she decided to have her uterus removed.

Yet even after making the agonising decision to have a hysterectomy, the procedure doesn’t put an end to many women’s suffering.

Many women are uninformed about the potential side effects or post-operative care, so quickly return to lifting heavy bundles of cane again.

“Little did I know back then that, in fact, this was the beginning of health crises,” says Ms Owhal. She now suffers severe back pain and leg discomfort, relying on daily painkillers to continue working. Many other women are in the same position, she said.

“I wish I would have died while getting the hysterectomy done. This post-surgery life is miserable,” says 42-year-old Suman Owhal, a canecutter from the same marginalised community as other women.

“I sweat a lot in the field. My back and legs always hurt. I feel very weak. I feel dizzy while carrying the bundles of cane.”

The hysterectomy procedure can take a toll on women’s mental health, Ms Bhardwaj explains. “They suffer from a feeling of worthlessness, a sense of isolation, and many suffered from suicidal thoughts,” she says.

The workers in the sugar fields are also forced to live in deplorable conditions, with no access to housing or clean toilets.

“The temporary sheds we live in are made of cloth. They are so small that if we lie down, half of our legs are outside the tents,” says Dwarkabai Waghmare, a 40-year-old cane-cutter and mother of eight children.

“Women wake up around 2–3 in the night and take a bath in the dark in one of the corners of the field so that nobody can see us,” she told IIED.

The harsh conditions aren’t limited to the fields. Families lose out on benefits from government schemes due to forced migration and bureaucratic boundaries.

The Indian government issues ration cards to buy food at subsidised rates but these cards only work in people’s home districts. It means that Jodis who are forced to migrate miss out.

“Half of the year, we can’t avail our ration. What is the use of this ration card?” asks Sumar Owhal another sugarcane cutter. Ms Orwhal spent ₹25,000 rupees on having a hysterectomy and continues to pay more for treatments after the operation.

Because they are migrant workers in Kolhapur, her family doesn’t qualify for any benefits or housing through the Below Poverty Line (BPL) card, nor is she eligible for the government’s job guarantee scheme.

Ms Bhardwaj says the experiences of female sugarcane cutters should be seen as an impact of the climate crisis.

The loss and damage fund - established at 2022’s global climate summit Cop27 to compensate people for irreversible losses caused by climate impacts- should be used to compensate these women, she added.

“When we talk about the losses incurred and the damage done by climate change, we’re not just talking about flooded apartments in New York, or scorched hillsides in Greece. These women’s experiences are also a result of climate change which has decimated their livelihoods, and some of what they have lost – their dignity, good health, in some cases their lives – is difficult to quantify,” she says.

Ms Bhardwaj says the money should be used to invest in social protection and enhance healthcare access, incorporating gender-sensitive approaches.

“By prioritising direct cash or benefit transfers to the most vulnerable communities, including leveraging technology and financial inclusion, the fund can ensure swift support reaches those in need,” she says.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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