Human rights activists are up in arms against a recent decision by the Maharashtra state government.
The government proposes to perform hysterectomy operations on mentally challenged women. The reason it gives is that 'mentally retarded adolescent girls or adult women during menstruation have no sense of hygiene.'
Hysterectomy is termed the surgical removal of the uterus and, sometimes, the ovaries. This procedure brings a stop to menstruation and the patient can never bear children. This is not all; it can also cause hormonal imbalances.
Yet Radhike Khanna vice-principal of SPJ Sadhana School, Peddar Road, Mumbai who has a doctorate in special education and has been dealing with mentally challenged students for over 20 years, emphasizes that patients with IQ as low as 20 can be taught how to maintain hygiene. "Even with profoundly retarded girls, who have no sensation, we recommend the use of diapers," she says.
Khanna also adds: "The mental illness can get compounded with surgical intervention like hysterectomy, which often causes hormonal imbalance leading to mood swings."
According to the government's affidavit submitted in the Bombay High Court, five government-run mental institutions currently house 330 mentally retarded girls and women. The government's reasons for backing hysterectomies are that inmates cannot maintain hygiene and do not co-operate with caretakers.
In 1994, when hysterectomies were performed on 17 girls in the Shirur home, administrative convenience bore more weight than the rights of inmates.
Still the confidence brimming in the students of Sadhana School who say they can take care of themselves during menstruation belies the government's claim that mentally challenged girls cannot maintain hygiene. The five government institutions are not even over-burdened: they have 470 inmates against a capacity of 560.
"Each mentally challenged person has different levels of understanding. A blanket benchmark of IQ below 50 for conducting a hysterectomy is absurd," adds Vandana Gopalkrishnan, co-founder of The Banyan, a Chennai-based NGO working with the mentally ill.