On October 28th, Sima Das, a community health worker here at Calcutta Kids gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Sonali. Sonali could very well have been the 7 billionth baby born into this world, with the UN symbolically marking the milestone only three days later on October 31st. While population growth and the escalating urbanization of India are large issues, the biggest issue in Sima’s family and the people of Fakir Bagan who had seen Sima throughout her pregnancy was the gender of her baby.
As we were walking through Fakir Bagan two weeks ago, Sima’s first time back since Sonali’s arrival, (just to visit!) women in their doorways called out “Kya huan?” meaning, “What kind?” (boy or girl) and Sima would respond “Larkie” meaning “Girl”. As we progressed through the slum, the response became steadily softer and more timid.
Sima is a strong woman. She is confident in herself as a mother, as a facilitator for health and as a role model for the community. But with disapproval and doubt coming from all sides, Sima started to doubt her belief that her second female child was not a limitation or liability.
Back at the office, with the other community health workers gathered around, we talked about how Calcutta Kids is a well run organization with a workforce that is 90% female, how the Chief Minister of West Bengal is a woman, and how the Government of India is run by a woman (although not officially). However, even with these great examples of powerful and influential women, Sima was still frustrated and upset.
West Bengal is not known for female feticide, unlike states like Punjab and Harayana where there are only 750 girls for every 1,000 boys. Even if the girls are not missing, the female children are clearly not valued in the same way as their male counterparts. This preference for male children indirectly leads to many of the problems that Calcutta Kids works to solve. Like the high rate of low birth weight which is mostly caused by women not eating enough during pregnancy. Or the high rate of domestic violence that is tolerated because women do not have the power to stand up to their husbands.
The frustration and upset that Sima was feeling have already started to diminish and will surely disappear as her daughter thrives and grows to become a wonderful, smart and powerful woman. But seeing the pervasive and blatant contempt for the female gender was a reminder that we do not live in a bubble and that at the end of the day, each of our community health workers must go back to a world of gender inequality. At the same time, I am sure that the time each of these community health workers spends in a place where women are as powerful, or more powerful, than men, allows them to see the possibility of an India, or a West Bengal, or a Fakir Bagan where the first thing a woman is asked after giving birth is not the gender of the baby. -Dora Levinson