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Gender, medicine, and society in colonial India

The growth of hospital medicine in 19th century India created a space–albeit a very small one–for providing Western-style healthcare to female patients. The earliest institutions devoted to women’s health were lock hospitals that treated prostitutes suffering from venereal diseases. In 1840, a large lying-in hospital was constructed in the grounds of the Calcutta Medical College in Bengal. However, the overall number of female patients attending medical institutions remained very low and it was argued by both the British and Indians that women were averse to treatment by male physicians. The real need to organise healthcare for these female patients made it comparatively easy for the administration to form a moral consensus on women’s medical education.

In Calcutta, the Director of Public Instruction supported the demand for women’s entry into Calcutta Medical College (CMC) and, in the face of opposition from the College Council, pushed the measure through with the support of the Lieutenant Governor. The first beneficiary of this new ruling was Kadambini Basu (Ganguli) who was admitted to the CMC in 1883. In 1886, she became the first female medical practitioner to practice in India.

In 1885, the Dufferin Fund was inaugurated to promote Western medicine for Indian women and proceeded to open many hospitals and dispensaries that provided employment for female doctors. Newfound medical education and employment as doctors gave women financial security and were an important to step in the recognition of women’s right to better health. They also exposed the policy of racial discrimination practised by the colonisers and the prevalence of sexism in society.

Discourses on sexuality and domestic practices that emerged in 19th century Bengal focused on remodelling women’s role as health-conscious wives and mothers. Medical and quasi-medical literature of this period contained guidelines for an ideal housewife that included proper home management, scientific nurturing of children, the regulation of dietary habits, and the creation of hygienic environments. Women were expected to have some knowledge of all available forms of treatment including folk medicine, allopathy, homeopathy, kabiraji, and hakimi.

Throughout the colonial period, attempts were made to modernise reproductive health by reforming birthing practices. Traditional birthing practices were under the scrutiny of both Bengali and British reformers. Missionaries and British doctors believed that the practices promoted by the midwives or birth attendants or dhais–who were generally lower caste Hindus or poor Muslims–were some of the main causes of the appallingly high rates of maternal mortality. In an attempt to rectify the situation, books were published to educate women in reproductive health practices and midwifery training courses were introduced; however, these failed to attract many practitioners.

…the reform of reproductive healthcare and the spread of women’s medical education, benefitted a privileged minority belonging to urban, higher-caste groups.

Late colonial India saw the emergence of preventive healthcare. A greater focus was placed on disseminating and popularising health education among women through different agencies. There was also growth of voluntary associations devoted to maternal and child healthcare. Under the influence of eugenics movements, the health of nations such as India became associated with increasing the physical strength and purity of the ‘race’, scientifically brought up by hygienically enlightened mothers.

One notable feature of 20th-century health reforms for women was the role played by women’s organisations that conducted training programmes, participated in baby shows and health week celebrations, and other projects intended to improve maternal health. Despite these efforts, women died in large numbers during the famine of 1943. This was partly due to famine induced epidemics but also because of abandonment and destitution leading to the adoption of survival strategies that negatively affected health. The famine exposed how poor health status among women and children made them extremely vulnerable, particularly when faced with the inefficiency of public health administration and dietary deficiencies.

As conditions improved, some female patients were offered more choice in their healthcare practitioners. However, these diverse forms of healthcare were mostly available to a handful of women residing in urban and semi-urban areas. Female healers who had existed in the pre-colonial period were gradually marginalised in the growing sphere of bio-medicine and ‘reformed’ indigenous medicine.

If one looks at the evolution of public healthcare administration and female mortality figures in the colonial period, it becomes clear that women’s health received less official attention than men’s health. Many of the changes, including the reform of reproductive healthcare and the spread of women’s medical education, benefitted a privileged minority belonging to urban, higher-caste groups. While voluntary agencies and women’s organisations continued to improve the health conditions of underprivileged women, disparate health outcomes remained a significant aspect of the history of women and medicine in colonial India.

The changes that took place in women’s healthcare in colonial India constitute a significant chapter of the country’s social history and laid an irrevocable foundation for medicine in the post-independence period.

Featured image credit: Calcutta Medical College and Hospital by Diptanshu.D. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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