Amid normalised caesarians, Kashmir hills busting modern-maternity myths

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Mother along with the daughters of Hafeeza outside their home yard in Sangnard area of Khiram, Anantnag. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed.]

Tribal women in Kashmir maintain maternity health with an unshakeable belief in the natural birth process. Their simple lifestyle questions the complex modern maternity healthcare that sends most of the expecting mothers through a surgical blade. 

Hafeeza sings a mysterious folksong in a hazy Sangnard, a tribal hamlet perched on Khiram Dargah hillock of Anantnag district.

At an altitude where clouds brush one’s hair, the song creates a resonating effect in the season of rejuvenation. 

Inside her mud house decked with multi-coloured walls and myriad utensils, the 23-year-old woman looks hearty.

A decade back, however, she was a deeply pensive person cursing her fate. Her parents’ poor condition forced her to marry a labourer. She was barely 12 and had no idea of marriage and motherhood.

But today, Hafeeza is a mother of 5 daughters and 4 sons. The miracle is that she delivered her 9 children normally without any monthly checkups, tests and didn’t even taste a single tablet. She’s physically fit and happily does all her household chores.

Hafeeza, mother of nine children, got married at the age of 12 is the only child of her parents. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed.]

Women of Kashmir’s tribal communities are often married as teenagers and end up having multiple children. Hafeeza’s mother says that her tribeswomen normally bear 5 to 8 children. “There’s no concept of birth control in our communities,” she says. “We live life as per nature here.”

Her daughter Hafeeza never visited any hospital during her nine previous pregnancies. “I believe in Allah,” she says, “and that trust gives me patience of delivering babies in my own home and bearing the labour pain.”

Tribals in Sangnard migrated from the hills of Udhampur-Reasi of Jammu some 70 years ago and settled in these areas covered by beautiful lush-green forests with snow-carpeted hills.

They’re part of Gujjar and Bakerwall tribes — the third largest ethnic group in Jammu Kashmir that constitute 20 per cent of the population. They’re deep-rooted with nature, indigenous livelihood, oral traditions, folk culture and are mostly confined to their own people. Their organic lifestyle and beliefs, it’s believed, challenge the modern way of reckless living and development needs. 

70 years ago this tribal family settled here in Sangnard area of Khiram, Anantnag. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed.]

Houses in Sangnard are scattered at the top of the various hills. Going in and out of home means climbing up and down the heights on foot. The terrain is very tough. It takes a considerable amount of time to cover even small distances. 

The tribals living at these heights are often seen as the poor, unhygienic and helpless ethnic group over the other cultures.

“My family lives in a far-flung area lacking health facilities,” says Shaheena, Hafeeza’s 18-year-old daughter. “But thanks to Allah, my mother has always delivered babies without much trouble.”

As in many parts of Kashmir, members of the tribal groups have their own beliefs and taboos when it comes to menstruation. These range from not touching kitchen utensils or taking baths. Most of them are still using old clothes or scarf instead of sanitary napkins. 

“I use an old cotton cloth, wash it dry and hide it, so that no one sees it,” says Amreena, Hafeeza’s another teen daughter. “This is what my mother has done and this is what we’re doing in our adolescent age.”

Like Amreena, most of the tribal girls feel ashamed talking about periods among the family. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed.]

There’s a disproportionate shortage of health workers in tribal areas. Also, tribal representation in the health workforce is inadequate, further hampering adaptation and implementation of health programs in these areas.

“Asha workers,” Amreena says, “are not active in our community. They visited us once to distribute a packet of sanitary napkins. We never saw them again.” 

But despite living with deprived healthcare services, Hafeeza and other tribal women rely on the natural birth cycle and avoid monthly checkups at the time of delivery. 

“I hardly visited hospital during my pregnancy,” says Tahir, 25, who delivered baby six months ago. “We prefer home treatment rather than embarking on an arduous foot journey.”

Parents of Hafeeza sitting inside the mud house in Sangnard. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed.]

Hafeeza’s song is still reverberating in the hills. The mother of 9 looks years older than her age, but her spirit and health makes her appear a buoyant girl in her early twenties. 

Even as the terrain makes life complicated for these tribal women, they maintain maternity health with an unshakeable belief in natural birth process. Their simple lifestyle is now questioning the complex modern maternity healthcare—sending most of the expecting mothers through a surgical blade.  

“Life is undoubtedly tough for tribal women,” says Hafeeza, pausing her song. “But we’ve no complains as long as nature is taking care of us.”

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