- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

MADRAS, India — Vasanthi lost both her children — a son and a daughter — on Dec. 26 when the giant waves struck. She was speechless and barely eating when health workers came upon her at a relief camp in her seaside village, Kallar, in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu state, a month after the disaster.

When the tsunami dead were interred in mass burials, nearly all the women wailed uncontrollably, but Vasanthi, 35, remained quiet.

In tropical south India, where most people bathe and change their clothing daily, she did not take a bath nor change her sari for weeks. She wouldn’t speak to her husband. Occasionally, the fisherwoman gazed for hours with tired eyes at a photograph of her children, but she never cried.

Counselors worked to bring her out of her silence, but she did not respond at first, and was diagnosed as a typical case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

After a week, she did regain the ability to speak, but she remained depressed through the following month.

Sterilization reversal

“When she started speaking slowly, we discovered she had turned mute because of the shock she got when she lost her children. Then her depression grew because she knew that she could not conceive again, having undergone sterilization through a tubectomy six years ago,” said Nirmala Palanisamy, one of Tamil Nadu’s 300 or so tsunami counselors.

“As soon as we explained there was a possibility that she might become a mother again if she underwent a reversal of sterilization, we noticed a remarkable change in her behavior and her depression seemed to lift.”

As part of a government-sponsored nationwide family-planning program aimed at controlling India’s annual population growth of 20 million people, more than 3 million women in Tamil Nadu like Vasanthi have undergone sterilization in the past decade.

At a medical workshop in Madras last week, Miss Palanisamy reported that in three tsunami-wrecked villages of Nagapattinam, she and her colleagues found 55 women who want to reverse their sterilization.

Government officials in Madras announced this week that families who lost all of their children to the tsunami would be offered free reversal-of-sterilization procedures at government hospitals to help them bear children again.

Free surgery offered

Tamil Nadu Health Secretary Sheela Rani Chunkath said this week that administrators of tsunami-hit coastal districts have been asked to list the applicants and make arrangements for the free surgery to rejoin women’s reproductive tubes as soon as possible.

A statement from the health department said that those getting reversal surgery at private hospitals would be reimbursed 25,000 rupees ($575) for medical expenses.

The Community Health Education Society (CHES), a Madras-based nongovernmental organization providing counseling to tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu, said more than 600 women and about 100 men who had undergone tubectomy and vasectomy were desperate to reverse their sterilization. About 8,000 lives, including those of about 2,500 children, were lost to the tsunami.

“After we explained how the sterilization could be reversed with a success rate as high as 60 percent in the case of women, and 70 percent in the case of men, they became impatient for the surgery. Some of them secretly headed for private hospitals in the nearby cities and underwent the surgery using compensation money they received for children killed by the tsunami,” said Dr. Pinagapani Manorama, the CHES director. She said the state government’s announcement that it would bear the full cost of the reversal surgery “brings unexpected joy to the people.”

Orphans not wanted

There are about 350 tsunami orphans at orphanages in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, none of the parents who had undergone sterilization and lost their children were interested in adopting orphans.

A district social-welfare officer in Nagapattinam who only gave her family name, Suryakala, said many people from elsewhere in India and even abroad “are willing to adopt the orphans, but local people are against sending children out of the area.”

If local people who lost their children “came forward for adoption, they could get priority. But we have not got a single application from the tsunami-affected areas,” she added.

Dr. Manorama said she believes that since 30 to 40 percent of sterilization-reversal operations are unlikely to be successful, a good number of childless parents may become desperate to adopt tsunami orphans in coming months.

Some women whose daughters survived the tsunami want sterilization reversal because they lost all their sons. But since they are not entitled to surgery at government expense, they are flocking to private hospitals and paying for sterilization reversal, using compensation they received from the government for the deaths of their sons.

Sons are preferred

As most parents do elsewhere in India’s patriarchal society, some adult tsunami survivors in Tamil Nadu stress the need for male heirs.

In Akkaraipettai, a tsunami-devastated village in Nagapattinam district, a 35-year-old fisherwoman said her 14-year-old son killed by the tsunami was among the brightest boys in his school, and she had hoped that one day he would become a “high-level government official” and help the family rise out of poverty.

Now, after surgery to reverse her sterilization, she hopes to have another son. “Otherwise, life will be meaningless for us,” said the woman, who did not want to be identified. Two daughters of the couple survived the tsunami.

Her college-educated husband, who used to be a daily-wage fish loader in the village, said: “Originally, I decided to buy a pickup van with the compensation money of 100,000 rupees, but after learning of the reversal surgery, I decided to spend some of the money to have a new son.

“A friend in Bombay has offered to help me reach an IVF [in vitro fertilization] clinic that guarantees boy children to its patients. I know it is illegal to choose the sex of a baby, but I don’t care because the tsunami took away my only son.”

His wife’s sterilization-reversal surgery cost about 25,000 rupees, and the Bombay IVF clinic that guarantees a son will take most of the remaining government compensation money.

A spokesman at a private hospital in Madras said three families seeking to have male babies after reversal of sterilization there were referred to Malpani Clinic in Bombay.

Prenatal selection of the sex of a baby is illegal in India, but some IVF clinics in major cities have nearly 95 percent male births.

A doctor at the Malpani Clinic said: “Almost all patients I treat prefer to have sons. In a democracy, people should be allowed to choose the sex of their children.”

“Having a son in the family is, of course, a wiser investment than buying a pickup van,” said the man from Akkaraipettai who is heading for Bombay in hope of fathering a boy.

[Andhra Pradesh, the Indian state just north of Tamil Nadu, has announced cash rewards equivalent to $2,300 to families having a single girl child, hoping to bolster its female population, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported this week.

[That state had 933 women and girls per 1,000 males in the 2001 census, and the situation has not improved since. The BBC said the reward is significant in a country where per capita income hovers at $470. Both parents would have to undergo verified birth-control operations after the girl’s birth and the money will be given to the child when she turns 20.]

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