- SUGAR GIRLS -
Abusive hysterectomies in India
Sugar Girls will be exhibited at Visa Pour L'image International Photojournalism Festival (Perpignan, France) from the 29th of August until the 27th of September.
In 2020, the story was rewarded with the French Ministry of Culture Production Grant for Female Photojournalists, the "Brouillon d'Un Rêve" Grant by La Scam, and the Contemporary Documentary Photography Production Grant by the CNAP (National Center for Fine Arts).
In May 2019, a scandal erupted in India when NGOs released alarming evidence showing that every year thousands of women working on sugar plantations in the state of Maharashtra are victims of unnecessary hysterectomies.
The practice began in the 1990s and developed as a profit-making venture for private doctors who, when consulted for routine conditions, led patients to believe that they needed to have their uterus removed. The doctors played on the women’s ignorance of their own bodies, carried out the surgery as if on a production line, and did so with total impunity. As they operated in private clinics, they were free to set their fees, which could reach amounts of more than 600 euros, an absolute fortune for the women. Previously, until the 1970s, abortion had been the most lucrative practice for such doctors, but with easier access to contraception and sterilization, they had to find other sources of income.
The women working on the sugarcane plantations are a perfect target: their labor is part of the country’s informal economy, and working conditions are therefore not covered by legal provisions or trade unions, and the women are not entitled to social or health insurance. As the physical labor on cane fields is particularly arduous, it can lead to health problems causing the women to seek assistance from these dishonest doctors.
And their suffering does not stop there, for many of the contractors on the plantations (the “mukadams”) urge the women to have hysterectomies to stop their menstrual periods and thus increase labor productivity. Such abusive practices are part of a more general trend towards privatization of the Indian economy and the quest for greater profit.
After the latest revelations, the government set up a State committee in June 2019 to investigate the practice in the district of Beed (Maharashtra), in the region which provides most of the labor for the country’s sugarcane plantations. The dire poverty of the people there means they have no other choice than to accept jobs as cane- cutters, despite the poor working conditions with no job security or guaranteed income.
To date the state committee has issued only guidelines, and no concrete measures or sanctions have been instituted. For NGOs, the culprit is the private medical sector, but the government has chosen to look elsewhere, which means there is little likelihood of any change occurring for women whose bodies are being butchered for the sake of profit.
Manisha Tokle (in the center), a human rights activist, visits Kasari Bodkha village in Beed District, Maharashtra, to meet with sugarcane cutters before their migration for the harvesting season. Since more than a decade, she’s fighting for farmers and laborers rights in the region. In May 2019, she was among the activists that disclosed the scandal of coerced hysterectomies among sugarcane workers. In this small village alone, more than 15 sugarcane workers underwent a hysterectomy .
Night falls as early as 6:30pm in the temporary camps put in place by the sugarcane cutters next to the fields. The cutters will live in such conditions for the whole cutting season - sometimes up to six months - going from one field to the other every few weeks. Women are, here again, soft targets in the dark. They only shower or go to the toilets when it’s dark to avoid being sein. They end up isolated in the night, away from the camps, and victims of sexual assaults.