To be a Woman
Nisha, 37, Zareena, 50, Harshi, 26 and Sakeena, 40… all have the same story to tell—menstrual irregularities, delayed menarche, early menopause, cervical cancer and anaemia.
Majority of the 2,50,000 people initially poisoned in 1984 were female. A medical study done two months after the gas leak by the NGO Medico Friends Circle discovered that pregnant women were victims of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, diminished foetal movement and disturbed menses.
After 25 years of the industrial tragedy menstrual abnormalities, vaginal discharge and cervical cancer have become commonplace in Bhopal. Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, which runs the Sambhavna Clinic, says, “Gynaecological problems are not openly discussed because of social taboos. The women do not even talk to their husbands about it. Our clinical pathologists found high proportions of abnormal PAP smears among women affected by the gas. It shows a definite connection between cervical cancer and gas exposure.”
Many women, who were infants then, now face menstrual problems. Nazma is one of them. She was just a year old when gas leaked, and now at 26, she is plagued by irregular cycles. “When I reached puberty, my periods were normal for three or four months. But later it stopped for four months and I took medicines to correct it. It was fine for two years, but now has been recurring in the last 10 years. I do not know when I will become a normal woman.”
Studies by the Sambhavna Clinic show that in areas close to the Union Carbide factory, the average age of menarche is 13.75, a year more than the national average. Dr Rupa Baddi, a medico working with Sambhavna, says, “Our records say that women gas survivors have a higher frequency of pelvic inflammatory disease, endocervicitis, menorrhagia and reduced lactation.”
Shamim Begum had several problems after marriage; irregular menstrual cycles and vaginal discharge were just the beginning. She was unable to conceive for seven years and then had a premature delivery.
Respiratory, neurological, gastro-intestinal and musculo-skeletal problems have been noticed and researched by the Indian Council of Medical Research, but the effects on reproductive health have not been taken care of, says Rachna.
For Shakila, who lives metres away from the factory, life is more than difficult. At 27, she has reached menopause when other women get ready for marriage. Aziza Bi, a gas survivor and Sambhavna activist, also suffers from menorrhagia. She says, “A few years ago, many girls from Bhopal could not find grooms, as they carried this tag of not being fertile due to gas leak, but gradually it is waning away. Shakila is unfortunate that she could not get a groom so far.”
Sultana, 29, was diagnosed with cervical cancer like Jaitun Bi, 54, when Sambhavna did a survey in 18 localities around the Union Carbide plant. Sabana Bi, 42, of Nawab Colony has urinary tract infection and menorrhagia. Doctors have been treating her symptomatically, and now she is on ayurvedic medicines and practises yoga under supervision of the Sambhavna Clinic.
The trust has set up a special gynaecology clinic in the name of writer Dominique Lapierre who donates the royalties earned from his book Five Past Midnight in Bhopal to the trust. Rupa says, “Our concern is to detoxify the bodies of patients who were loaded with antibiotics over the years for want of a proper protocol.”
A survey of psychiatric morbidity found that nearly 40 per cent of those exposed suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Femida, 34, spends her days wandering in slums and often tears up her clothes in a fit of madness. She is one of the many women whose families are unable to get them married for fear of having deformed babies.
Almost 43 per cent of pregnant women lost their babies to methyl isocynate on December 2, 1984, and Shail Kumari is one of them. She was barely 21 and four months pregnant then. In the chaos, she ran along with her husband for kilometres and lost her child the next morning. But the worst followed, when her menstruation stopped and she was unable to conceive. Her husband waited for five years and later remarried from another city. Kumari now lives with her parents and brothers cursing the gas, which took away her womanhood and chance of happiness.
Some names have been changed.