Effect of Superstition on Health and Nutrition of Women

A woman is supposed to cook and feed her family. She does it to the best of her ability but without any training in nutrition and health. She knows a little bit about traditional cooking passed on to her by her mother. Some times she makes some fancy, exotic dishes if she can afford it. But she is not trained or even informed regarding the constituents of food, their nutritional values, the different diets needed by different members of the family, etc. The buying power of an ordinary Indian family is so little that members hardly get enough to eat. Under such circumstances the housewife is the worst hit of all. Our culture tells us that a wife lives for the husband and his family. She is supposed to eat whatever is left over after every one has had his fill. The girls in the family too remain malnourished and unhealthy like their mother. The malnourished girls are married at an early age before they physically grow up into a woman. In case the young girl does not produce a son, the family blames the girl and the husband deserts her. It never occurs to any one in the family that the husband might be the guilty party. Instead of consulting a physician the poor girl is taken to a Baba who uses charms and spells and other mumbo jumbo.

In most families, no attention is given to the health of a woman or her delivery. People show little concern only when a woman is unable to do any work being very ill. It’s quite natural for a woman to have much less than adequate meal or to eat whatever is left over after everyone in the family has had his fill. The malnutrition caused affects the woman in several ways. Pregnant women are given iron tablets by the government free of charge. If the woman who cooks food for everyone in the family, is given training and information as to how to provide a square meal for all, including herself, instead of distributing pills, it will surely go a long way. Poverty of course is at the root of the problem. But one must keep in mind that poverty is not the only cause of malnutrition.

Within four to five years after a girl starts her periods, the growth of her body is complete. Generally a girl starts her periods at 12 – 13 years. That means she may marry at the age of 18 years but not before. However, girls are still married off at 15 and 16 years! Due to early marriage, especially in villages, a girl conceives and delivers at a very early age. Her womb is not grown enough to conceive. Her food intake is inadequate. The growth of the baby that is born to her is stunted as a result. In India 30% of newborn babies weigh less than 2.5 kg. The infant mortality in India is ten times that of even other developing countries, leave alone comparing it with developed countries. Five hundred out of a lakh of women die during delivery in India while in other developing countries the figure is 20!

Woman’s health in this country is no doubt very much neglected but the point here is how all these things make her helpless and prone to be superstitious. She takes resort to vows and observances to overcome her chronic physical and mental afflictions, which are in reality caused by malnutrition. Many times the cause of her chronic illness is taken to be a spell and a lot of time, effort and money are spent on Devrishis or sorcerers. The responsibilities of married life weigh down on her immature body and mind, as she is married at a very early age. The fear of her or her baby’s death during delivery constantly gnaws at her. All this causes mild or severe mental illness, which of course is taken to be an attack by a ghost and usual measures are taken to repel the spell cast by them. These conditions of a woman’s life form the material foundation of her superstitious psyche.

Most women are under continuous mental strain for various reasons; the husband does not love or the mother-in-law harasses or recognition and prestige are lacking or there is no harmony in the family or lack of satisfaction in sexual life and so on. The strain causes a split in personality of the woman that is related to specific period, place and person. For example, at the temples of Ambabai and Dattatray one finds many possessed women ad it is generally not pretence. It is either a deep state of self-hypnosis or mild mental illness – hysteria. Hysteria is an incidental affliction. The patient suffers from palpitation, shivering and twitching of the body, feeling of being choked or of chest being compressed. All these are mental disorders. The patient gets used to it, that is, it stops for a while but re-emerges before long. It may not be cured completely even after medical treatment because more than the treatment what is needed is to change the situation that has caused it in the first place. If the harassment by the mother-in-law or the addiction of the husband remains unchanged, the illness recurs. Sometimes, on the other hand, the patient is cured spontaneously or because of the positive suggestions given by the sorcerers and the patient and her relatives are convinced that it surely was an affliction caused by a ghost or spirit. Other symptoms like sudden lassitude of limbs, blindness despite perfectly healthy eyesight, becoming dumb with vocal apparatus intact, etc. is characteristics of the disease called hysterical convulsions. Any cure for this disease brought about by means other than medical treatment, has a dramatic effect on people and strengthens their belief in supernatural powers. Along with the approval of tradition, sense-excitation and self-hypnosis, a woman feels she is possessed and begins puffing and panting for hours, becomes insensitive to physical pain, starts talking in a strange language. Ignorance of scientific reasons behind these phenomena increase the mystery and consequently gives a boost to superstition.

Ignorance and poverty are necessarily accompanied by disease and superstition. These unfortunate malnourished women and the members of their family fall pray to many easily avoidable diseases. Lack of cleanliness causes skin diseases, which are widespread in the rural areas. Similarly common are occurrences like premature deliveries, child mortality, deaths during childbirth or pregnancy and so on. Even the small countries like Srilanka and Bangladesh have been able to reduce child mortality much more than in our country. No wonder that women surrounded by so many adversities- malnutrition, neglect in childhood, ignorance, early pregnancies, deliveries without any medical help, rigors of bringing up the children and facing responsibilities without receiving proper training and education-become victims of superstition. Solution to the problem of superstition involves solving all these related problems and should find a place in ‘Women’s declaration ‘on eradication of superstition.