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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Viral Suttee

From the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition:
suttee [Sanskrit. sati=faithful wife], former Indian funeral practice in which the widow immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. The practice of killing a favorite wife on her husband’s grave has been found in many parts of the world; it was followed by such peoples as the Thracians, the Scythians, the ancient Egyptians, the Scandinavians, the Chinese, and peoples of Oceania and Africa. Suttee was probably taken over by Hinduism from a more ancient source. Its stated purpose was to expiate the sins of both husband and wife and to ensure the couple’s reunion beyond the grave, but it was encouraged by the low regard in which widows were held. The practice was not universal throughout Hindu history. It was abolished by law in British India in 1829, but isolated cases of voluntary suttee have occurred into the 20th cent.
So they say. Casting one's self on a funeral pyre may have gone out of fashion, but a more insidious form of suttee has taken root in India––viral suttee.

According the the Globe and Mail, "India has an estimated 5.13 million people with HIV, second only to South Africa, although the percentage of those with the AIDS-causing virus is much lower than in many parts of Africa, where the infection rate is well into the double digits." There, as in much of Africa, it is the men who bring the disease into a family, and, with it, death.

India places a huge premium on fertility. Women (and often they are still girls) who marry will try to conceive as soon as possible, lest their in-laws consider them barren*, and cast them out. Divorce is a common fate for an infertile woman, and remarriage uncommon.

This remains true even if the husband in HIV-positive, and the wife is not. Yet.

I've seen such patients myself at our antenatal clinic in Vellore. They know that they will probably become infected. They know that, even with medication, they can expect to live, at best, about 10 years. They know they will leave their child an orphan. They know the child may be born infected. But still, they try. The in-laws will raise the child, they say. Besides, what else can they do?

And what else can she do, especially if she's low (or no) caste? She is probably illiterate, and has no job skills. Her family may not want her back if the husband's family rejects her––another mouth to feed, a dowry squandered, and the shame. Her future seems bleak. She is willing to sacrifice her future for acceptance now, to avoid a life of destitution, and perhaps prostitution, which is a death sentence in itself.

So she conceives, becomes infected, and dies. Just another statistic in this global epidemic. But she is a sati, as much as any widow who ever threw herself on a funeral pyre, immolated by the HIV virus.

*Among the young doctors I worked with, I found that they would present obstetric patients to me as having "an x history of infertility," where x equals the number of months/years since the wedding. It is automatically assumed that one is trying to conceive as soon as one marries. Wouldn't our fundies be happy there? (Well, except for that one child thing, and the prevalence of sterilization........)


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