Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The economics of motherhood - 1

Food is a human 'right'.
Maternity is a 'benefit'.
Gender is a 'problem'.

Never mind, let me tell you a story.

Khairi is a new mother. Khairi has just given birth, at home. Hours after the birth, Khairi is seen sitting up, pressing warm pads (an old saree folded into a cushion and heated on top of a stove) to her belly, in a futile effort to ease the pain. For the next two days, her baby will survive (perhaps) by licking jaggery off her fingertips. The first feed (the thick yellowish breast milk) within hours of birth is crucial to the baby's health - Khairi knows. But she is not feeding the baby, because she has not eaten herself. Even through her pregnancy, she never had more than two-three rotis a day. She hopes that to produce some milk, hopes to feed the baby, hopes to keep it alive.

Khairi will not get three months' leave from work. She is an agricultural labourer. If she does not work, she does not eat. The government offers her or her child no guarantees. She can go to the anganwadi and collect her allocation, which is supposed to supplement her diet. Supplements, yes....but supplement what?

Khairi might have a husband. In this story, we don't know for sure. He is probably a labourer himself. Perhaps, he makes enough to feed his wife well. Perhaps, he does not. Perhaps, he does not think that he needs to make enough for her or her baby.

Let us assume that Khairi's husband did not want the baby. He just wanted uncomplicated sex.

Let us also assume that Khairi is willing to bring up her own baby, and that society will not ostracise her. Khairi goes back to work within three days of having a baby. She carries the baby around with her (she can do this since she is an agricultural labourer; it would have been difficult if she made presentations in corporate board-rooms). Perhaps, she already had another child. This child will most likely be pulled out of school to look after the newborn.

We (society) have the following options:

- Let Khairi's baby die. It is unwanted and if the mother cannot keep it alive, well, tough!
- Insist that Khairi's husband pay for the child. Acting on the philosophy that there is no such thing as uncomplicated sex, and that reproduction is the natural outcome thereof.
- Find out whose decision it was to have the baby (after having established without doubt that abortion facilities were freely available to the couple) to assign responsibility for the child.
- Pay for the baby collectively (through taxes), but not enough for Khairi's survival.
- Pay collectively for Khairi, at least for three months, possibly for eighteen months.
Which option sounds the most reasonable to you?
Did you decide that ALL mothers must be taken care of, regardless of background or type of employment, to allow for motherhood?
If not, then - in all fairness - you must also decide to abandon all child nutrition/health/education/safety services; after all, your logic suggests that children are the parents' (at least, the mother's) responsibility. They only deserve as much health, as much protection, as their biological parents can afford. Correct?
And if this too is not acceptable, then, what do you recommend?
Do you recommend that women go on pushing themselves to work, to the dishes, to the hospital, to the boundaries of endurance, because they are the ones who have babies?
Do you recommend that women stop having babies, unless they can find a male human who coughs up enough money to survive a few years?
Do you recommend that companies who refuse to hire mothers (or are found to suffer from a disproportionate lack of mothers in their work-force) be penalised?
Do you recommend that women confine themselves to kitchen, crib and bedroom, and put up with anything their men may throw their way - in exchange for the glorious opportunity to get pregnant?
Do you recommend that women give birth and then abandon babies, because, surely, people can change their minds?
Do you recommend that we allow women to sell babies? Why should the state intervene? Why does society (we) feel outraged and/or concerned when a woman sells her baby? Do we assume the right to prevent such sales? (But rights bring responsibilities.)
I make none of the aforementioned recommendations.
But I would like to know - especially those who disagree with the suggestion that mothers be allowed at least eighteen months of social support - What do you recommend?

[In response to - Why mothers? Why now? Why, when half the nation's children are hungry, and half the women don't have access to pre/post-natal care, and half the men are jobless and half the world at war? Why, when we can't seem to get the population to stop producing a more infernal population?]


Lotus Eyes said...

I remember reading something on similar lines in Germaine Greer's 'The Whole Woman'. This problem has no easy answers. Only economic empowerment of women can lead to their social and individual progress. I would have to think about this deeply to come up with an answer that is somewhere close to achieving the objective.
Your pieces on human scavenging and the veil were touching and extremely well written. I have linked to one of your posts on human scavenging in a post of mine.
Also, I have added you to my blogroll. Hope you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

It's something I've given thought to, but never articulated as clearly as you have. Maybe I will, now. Thanks, Annie, again.

the mad momma said...

There can never be one correct answer to a situation like this. While as educated women we want rights and opportunities etc, someone needs to take care of the child who has had no say in his existence. For Khairi perhaps the simplest way out is paying for 18 months, but who is to say she will be able to support the child after that? Babies are made by a man and woman together and i guess nature created it this way, because nature meant for the man to provide for both while the mother is physically weak and also while the baby is young and needs full time care and breastfeeding. I often get rude remarks on my blog for old fashioned views, but they are not old fashioned, they sometimes seem the most practical. I would suggest that women should not have babies till they find a support system, whether it is the man responsible or their own family. Anything. Only because that is the only way to give themselves and their babies the best shot at life.

Anonymous said...

Every woman ought to have the freedom to decide whether she would carry a pregnancy to term. However, the costs related to exercise of such freedom must be primarily borne by the decision makers: she herself and her partner. If they make a decision for which they cannot pay, the society has to bridge the gap for the child, who cannot directly influence the decision of the parents, but only to the extent that the consequences of their decision cannot be ignored by the couple. I know it throws up a lot of issues, but this is best I could think of. Thanks for writing about the issue.

Annie Zaidi said...

lakshmi: I don't mind at all. Quite the contrary.
erimentha: please do. this will take more minds than one.
mad momma: true. no easy solution, but one has to be found. or many different solutions have to be found.
sunil: perhaps, but your comment throws up a hundred different questions, some of which I will try and address in a sequel post.

a correspondent said...

In a vibrant capitalist society, the problem can be taken care of by a good social security system. In a socialist society, the state is expected to keep everyone is some state of minimalist health and security. When you are stuck between the two, or in either a failed capitalist or socialist society, you have nothing.

Anonymous said...

I've recently begun exploring development and welfare related blogs on the internet and I must say that your entry was both clear and spot on.

Given the number of times a similar situation probably occurs in the the poorer sectors of economies, be it a labourer in the sub-continent, or an african tribal, there is a necessity to think about it.

According to me, an initial ideal soulution in a socialist state would be to set up and publicize NGO, government aided, private welfare organizations where these people would find help.

In the longer run, the focus should be on educating young women and men on the importance of having a social support for the child before deciding to conceive, given that a lot of people think that having more children will increase their income, without considering the adverse effects.

If you ask me - should a baby be aborted, I would say no. That's a personal belief and something that can be debated for years without coming to a final conclusion (as is currently going on in the political world, especially when elections come around).

diya said...

It has been stated in international law that children cannot be the responsibility of the women alone- they are the responsibility of the society as a whole... this episode shows clearly the shortcomings of the maternity benifit Act which does not apply to the unorganized work force... so the fault is ours for not bringing these issues to the fore, for not voting, bringing inert blind, deaf and self seeking politicians into power, for discussing this on the internet and doing nothing about it...

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