Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No rights for the mentally disabled

At a Kolkata mental hospital recently female patients were found left stark naked in the ward. Mental illness is included in the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995, but the mentally disabled are denied even the rights and reservations available to the physically disabled.

The incident took place on March 8, 2008, a day when some of us were busy observing International Women’s Day. The daughter of a female patient went to visit her mother at Pavlov Mental Hospital, a government-run hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal. As the patient’s condition was serious, Doctor Ashis Acharya took the girl into the ward where her mother was. There, they were both shocked to see that all the female patients were stark naked. According to hospital authorities, this was because their clothes had gone for washing. When Dr Acharya protested, the hospital staff started arguing with him. A nurse, when questioned, explained that a second set of clothes was usually given to the patients when one set went for washing, but that stripping mentally ill patients of their clothes was “not a serious issue”.

The incident was reported on the front page of Anandabazar Patrika, a widely circulated Bengali newspaper.

As usual, it triggered a blame game. The authorities wanted to know who had leaked the information to the newspaper. The West Bengal health minister said he was too busy with the Assembly session to give appointments to rights-based organisations. The health secretary of the state was also too caught up to give appointments. When contacted, the chairperson of the State Women’s Commission said that she had not read the news item and was unaware of the incident. According to the reporter who was following up the case, the hospital superintendent claimed it was a non-issue and he did not understand what all the fuss was about.

Interestingly, all these people asked the same question during the course of conversation: who was the source of the story. Apart from the chairperson of the Women’s Commission, no one considered it a serious human rights violation. Nor did they express any concern.

What does this lack of empathy, especially amongst people in power, have to do with the position of mentally ill women in society?

Firstly, it is difficult to define “mental illness”. “Madness”, “lunacy”, “insanity”, “mental illness” and “mental disorder” are terms used to describe aspirations, beliefs and conduct that vary from the accepted psycho-social or bio-medical norm. We are careful about using the politically correct terminology for the mentally ill today. But without changing the situation on the ground, changing the terminology is a futile exercise.

Societal attitudes reflect the terms we use. Someone with a psycho-social disability is looked down upon by society. Despite mental illness being included as a category of disability in the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995, reservations under the law exist only for those who are physically disabled. It is clear that even amongst persons with disability, those with psycho-social problems feature low in the hierarchy. They are not eligible to stand for elections, nor do they have the right to vote. Not only do they not have political rights, according to Indian law they cannot enter into any contract.

“Mental unsoundness” in our marriage laws bars a person with mental disability from getting married. People are also denied custody of their children, and cannot adopt, on grounds of mental unsoundness. It is important to remember here that a woman’s world is woven around the word “marriage”. Unlike men, the status of women in society depends on whether she is married, single, widowed or divorced. Though things have changed in some urban areas, in general, societal attitudes towards women remain the way they have always been.

Within two weeks of reading the report, I visited Dhaniakhali, in Hooghly district, West Bengal, just an hour’s journey from Kolkata. I was there to attend a health fair. That’s when I met Saraswati, a tribal girl who works at an anganwadi. When Saraswati heard that we work with persons with disability, she said she wanted to talk to us in private. She told us that her younger brother-in-law’s wife had become “mad” and that the whole family was trying to prove that she was a dain (witch). Saraswati was the only person in the family who understood what her sister-in-law was going through. Her efforts to take the girl to a medical centre had been futile, and she felt very alone. Seeing and talking to us had given her a little strength. She promised that she would try her best to stop her sister-in-law from being tortured or sent to an asylum, thereby allowing her husband to remarry.

It is important that the people responsible for what happened at Pavlov Mental Hospital on March 8 are brought to book. It is important that our government is made accountable to the public. It is important to find the correct terminology for issues related to mental disability. And it is important to change the laws. But, in the end, one cannot help but think that it’s more important to have at least one Saraswati in every family. For not just charity, the rights approach too begins at home.

By Shampa Sengupta ,an activist working on disability and gender issues. She is presently working with Sruti Disability Rights Centre, Kolkata, and runs a helpline for persons with disability.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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