India’s health minister has some medieval ideas about women’s bodies

Let’s talk about women.
Let’s talk about women.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

India’s health minister, who faced a maelstrom of criticism last month for promoting yoga and “good values” as substitutes for sex education, has made another ill-conceived statement.

Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, while addressing a gathering at a women’s college in Delhi university today, said that the nation needs a new policy to address the health problems that women in urban India face.

“As a medical man, I am depressed by this new trend as reported to me by many reputed obstetricians and gynaecologists,” said Vardhan, referring to the increase in polycystic ovarian disease, endometriosis and fibroids—conditions associated with infertility.

According to the health ministry, these diseases are increasingly affecting urban women even while they are in their teens.

Then came this statement:

“A woman’s body is a temple, extremely important from the perspective of a nation’s future. Building a new generation of healthy women has a salutary effect on family, society and nation because each woman multitasks as professional in her chosen field, mother and teacher of her children, and, above all, custodian of collective values,” the minister said.

Women activists believe that such statements perpetuate the dogma that women should be treated as sacred wombs rather than individuals who have control and rights over their bodies.

“It is portraying a woman’s body as a reproductive machine,” said All India Progressive Women Association secretary Kavita Krishnan. “When you start equating a woman’s body with a temple, the emphasis is not on her control over the body. Then it is an abstract place that other people are supposed to protect and worship at.”

A woman is entitled to good health as a citizen of this country, not because her body is a “temple”, Krishnan added.

And while the minister celebrates a woman’s “multitasking” abilities, studies have shown that such expectations actually have adverse impact on women and their careers. Research firm Catalyst has pointed out that even though many urban Indian women start their careers on a strong note, they rarely reach the top because they are expected to take care of their families.

“Women’s aspirations and overall career advancement are affected by the pressure they face to fulfil multiple (and often competing) commitments at home and at work,” said the study.