A pregnant Indian woman with a henna tattoo on her belly. Photo: iStock
A pregnant Indian woman with a henna tattoo on her belly. Photo: iStock

It’s the mother, even the grandmother of all advice for pregnant women. A booklet called Mother and Child Care issued by the Indian Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (Ayush), which was formed in 2014 to promote traditional and alternative healing practices, says that pregnant women should control lust, avoid eating meat and eggs, and stay away from “bad company”.

“Pregnant women should detach themselves from desire, anger, attachment, hateredness [sic] and lust,” the booklet says, going on to urge expectant mothers to put up “good and beautiful pictures” on the walls of their bedroom. It calls on women “to do self study”, have “spiritual thoughts” and read the biographies of great personalities.

The advice cannot all be dismissed as nonsensical. Controlling stress, for instance, isn’t at all a bad thing, nor is avoiding hatred. And reading biographies would contribute to expanding one’s knowledge and outlook on life. Looking at “beautiful pictures” is certainly easy on the eyes.

But what do these tips have to do with maternal health? There are no scientific studies confirming, for instance, that looking at “good and beautiful pictures” is good for maternal and child health.

Controlling women’s sexuality

The booklet advises pregnant women to avoid sex. But medical experts say that except in high-risk pregnancies, sex during pregnancy is all right, even advisable, as it helps ease the delivery of the baby.

Under fire from the media and civil society, Minister for Ayush Shripad Yesso Naik pointed out that the booklet does not forbid sex. Indeed, it does not mention the words “no sex” but calls on women to avoid desire and lust. Is the Ministry for Ayush then calling on women to have sex but without desire and lust? This is an old, patriarchal argument to control the sexuality of women: They could have sex but not enjoy it.

The Ayush booklet reflects Sangh Parivar thinking, and is aimed at furthering its Hindutva agenda. An umbrella organization of Hindu right-wing organizations that include India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology aims at Hinduizing all Indians and making India a Hindu state. To this end it has been seeking to impose the culture, diet and practices of upper-caste Hindus on all of India’s communities, including non-Hindu ones.

Since the BJP came to power in 2014, it has accelerated efforts to push vegetarianism down the throats of meat eaters. The Ayush booklet’s endorsement of vegetarian diet for pregnant women must be seen in this context.

Maternal health

The booklet could have been ignored had it contents not endangered mothers and children. Eating nutritious food is essential for good health, and the booklet rightly emphasizes this. But by opposing the eating of meat and eggs, the Ayush ministry is denying pregnant women a rich source of proteins and iron.

Nearly 45,000 women die during childbirth in India, accounting for 17% of all such deaths globally every year. India’s maternal mortality rate is 174 per 100,000 live births. The incidence of anemia and malnutrition is high among pregnant women in India, contributing to the high maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, and stunting and other growth deformities in newborn children.

India has made remarkable progress in tackling these problems thanks to a slew of nutrition, public health and other programs aimed at improving maternal and child welfare. These substantial achievements will be reversed if the masses take the Ayush guidelines seriously and avoid meat and eggs.

Vegetarian diets are good for health too but in families and communities that are non-vegetarian by tradition, the likelihood of nutritious vegetarian food being cooked for the pregnant woman only is remote.

Interestingly, while the Ayush booklet has much to say about what the woman should and shouldn’t do during pregnancy, it makes no mention of the responsibilities of her husband and family. It could have spoken up against domestic violence, for instance.

In many Indian families, women and girls are the last to eat and thus often go hungry. The Ayush booklet could have called on the family to ensure that the woman’s nutrition is prioritized during her pregnancy at least. Sadly, it is silent on these key matters.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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