Gangadhar Patil | Aug 9, 2018 | 6 min read
Pregnancy, periods bring these tribal women in India to their knees forcing them to live in isolation as they are likely to contract an infection and that’s why it's important that they stay away from others.
JASHPUR, INDIA - Can you imagine subjecting pregnant women to solitary confinement and making them crawl through a narrow opening, two-feet high and one-foot wide, to answer nature’s call or to bathe? That’s a tradition a tribe living in the jungles of central India's Chhattisgarh state follows to “protect” the health of the mother to be.
The Pahari Korva, who inhabit the forested hills of Jashpur district some 350 km from the state’s capital Raipur, insists its women isolate themselves when they are menstruating or pregnant. Helpfully, her husband or another family member takes over her cooking duties.
Regardless of the woman's build and even her advanced stage of pregnancy, she has to crawl in and out of the room through that small opening. The tradition is centuries old and the tribals follow it diligently. They claim not a single woman has had a miscarriage or any complication owing to this practice.
Bhupendra Nath, a self-proclaimed Ayurveda expert from the region explains why the Korva tribe is particular about this custom. He says they believe a woman is highly likely to contract an infection during pregnancy or menstruation and that’s why it's important that they stay away from others. Nath, who is not from the tribe, claims this is the best way to ensure cleanliness and to keep the women safe from diseases. Ayurveda is the ancient Indian science of healing and well-being.
As for making women negotiate the narrow opening, he said it provides them with regular exercise. He explains that the exercise they get from crawling prepares their body for the delivery and also keeps the baby in the womb in good condition. He reasons that the physical activity also helps alleviate discomfort in a menstruating woman.
Ram Prakash Pandey, chief of Janjaatiya Suraksha Manch (or tribal protection forum), noted that the Korvas are strict about following the custom. So much so that even after delivery, a woman is kept in isolation for a few days to avoid infection. For menstruating women, the rationale to keep them locked up is that they are considered unclean during these days, he says.
Pandey says the Korvas have been following this practice long before allopathy was even invented. He contends that the methods the tribals employ are more relevant and effective than any medical discipline in the world. He says the women aren't kept away from their home or at a distant place, just made to stay in a separate purpose-built room.
This reporter's attempts to speak with the tribal women mostly drew a blank. Most were wary of opening up to a stranger about menstruation, which is still widely considered taboo in India. The standard response was that it's an old tradition and that's why they follow it, no questions asked.
However, one tribal woman in her early 30s, Radha Bai, begged to differ. She said these practices were devised centuries ago and should be abandoned. She said the world has totally transformed since the time their traditions were established and a progressive review of these practices was the need of the hour.
She explained the ordeal the Korva woman have to put up with on a monthly basis. As if cramps and mood swings aren't enough, their periods arrive with the bane of untouchability. The tribe considers a menstruating woman so impure that it locks her up to ensure she doesn't contaminate others or the house even inadvertently. When she stops menstruating, a prayer is performed and only then can she mingle with others and go back into her house.
“Those days are the most painful days of a woman's life,” Radha says. While most woman would attest to periods being distressing, this statement has a particularly harsh ring to it when it comes from a Korva woman.
The Korva tribe number about 25,000 of which 15,000 live in Chhattisgarh. They depend largely on the forest for a living. While government-run primary healthcare centers do exist around their settlements, most don't avail of the facility.
According to a news report citing Indian government data, the infant-mortality rate (infant deaths for every 1,000 births) and maternal mortality rate (for 100,000 births) in Chhattisgarh in 2012 was 48 and 263 respectively. Both these figures were above India's national average. The female literacy rate in Jashpur district was 58.61% according to 2011 census.
Judging by their staunch adherence to age-old customs, one might think they are cut off from the outer world. However, that is not the case. Seeing their population was in decline India’s third President, Zakir Hussain, had adopted the tribe to improve their lot. The Korva tribals possess voter-identity cards and local elected representatives actively engage with them to solve problems.
The Pahari Korva Development Authority has been created by the government for their welfare. News reports mention government programmes, for instance promoting solar power, or non-government organisations encouraging better farming practices among the Korvas. But it’s unclear whether these interventions include education about women's reproductive health or welfare.
Pradeep Narayan Singh Diwan, a Korva leader and the head of a local rural body, concedes that ancient customs need to be relooked at from a scientific perspective. He accepts that there’s a need to educate the tribal community to do away with the forced confinement and says he’ll make efforts to ensure that these women get medical attention.
Dr V Bakhala, who works at the government-run community health center in Bagicha, a town close to where the tribals live, strongly disapproves of their treatment of expectant mothers. Calling the practice highly dangerous, she said it was wrong and puts women and the baby at risk.
In a report released in 2016, the World Health Organization said that five women die every hour in India during childbirth. A news report recently said about 90% of the women in India don't use a sanitary napkin when menstruating.
There are many myths and misconceptions in India about menstruation and pregnancy. Extreme as it might seem, the Pahari Korva tribe’s attitude to women is really just one instance of the prevalent, and socially-sanctioned, misogyny and ignorance.
(Yogesh Thawait is a Jashpur based freelance writer and Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow based freelance writers. Both are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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