MUMBAI (REUTERS) - Special task forces have been established in India to help stop women from being duped by doctors into having unnecessary hysterectomies that cause debt bondage and enslave families, the country's health ministry said.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation in three Indian states, published in May, found that families were taking big loans for the unnecessary removal of the uterus and ovaries of women, forcing many into debt or slavery.
India's health ministry held a day-long consultation with human rights campaigners, gynaecologists, medical experts and state officials this week, hoping to find the best ways to solve the health scandal.
Six task forces have now been formed to develop a strategy within 15 days for keeping a nationwide record of hysterectomy cases and creating better awareness in villages about unnecessary operations.
The task forces, comprising health campaigners, government officials and representatives from communities, will also develop a list of alternative treatments for many of the health complaints suffered by Indian women who visit doctors.
"Our main takeaway was that almost 95 per cent of hysterectomies performed in India are unnecessary," Mr Dinesh Baswal, deputy commissioner of maternal health at the health ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Thursday (Aug 1).
"Most women undergoing the surgery are uneducated and from rural India. We hope that the solutions that emerge from here on will protect the poor from this cost," he said.
About 3 per cent of Indian women have had hysterectomies, according to a government survey in 2018, which showed that half of the women had never gone to school and two-thirds of operations were performed in private hospitals.
Hysterectomies are never the solution to most of the health problems Indian women present to doctors, such as irregular periods, white discharge or pelvic pain, medical experts say.
Rising demand for the procedure highlighted the issue of private doctors cashing in on ignorance, they add.
But the high cost of hysterectomies driving families into slavery had largely gone unnoticed, human rights activists said.
India is home to an estimated eight million modern-day slaves, working at farms, factories and fisheries, trapped in the sex trade or forced into marriages, according to the Global Slavery Index by the Australia-based charity Walk Free Foundation.
Human rights campaigners quoted in the Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation were invited to the government-backed consultation this week to share their data on women who had undergone the operation in their respective regions.
"This (the consultation) is a beginning," said Mr Bharath Bhushan, founder of the Centre for Action Research and People's Development - one of the first organisations to study the medical malpractice in 2005.
"The government is acting now, but hysterectomies cannot be viewed simply as a medical problem," Mr Bhushan said. "This is the outcome of years of medical malpractice that has forced many into bondage."