SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – Shock, sadness and silence engulfed Ishrat Hussain, 26, when she learned about her inability to conceive. She says she locked herself in a room in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, and trembled like a fish, wishing death upon herself.
“When I came to know about my inability, I was completely ripped off,” Hussain says, her voice choked with emotion.
A newly married woman, Hussain thought that she would soon become pregnant and enjoy motherhood. But when she was still unable to conceive two years after her marriage, she says she confided in her family and asked for their support.
She then visited a gynecologist, who diagnosed her with polycystic ovary syndrome, an endocrine disorder known to cause women to stop ovulating, gain unusual weight, develop irregular periods or skin problems like acne, and grow abnormal facial and body hair.
“I was shattered,” she says. “Life without children is nothing. It is a waste. I would never be able to know what it feels like to bear a child. I feel myself as a barren land.”
Hussain tries to muster the courage to put into words how people ridiculed her in her community in Kashmir, where infertility is taboo. Though she doesn’t feel comfortable talking openly about the pain of infertility, her loss is visible on her face. Whenever she does talk about her desire for motherhood, she dissolves into tears and becomes inconsolable.
“An infertile woman is generally viewed as incomplete with a notion of having a curse bestowed for some misdeed,” she says with tears filling her eyes.
She says that her community made her feel as if she were less of a woman because she couldn’t bear children – that it was her fault even.
“How can I live with this stigma throughout my life?” she asks. “I don’t know for what fault of mine God has punished me.”
But doctors in the region say that it’s not her fault at all, as Hussain is not the only woman in Kashmir suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome.
Doctors say that decades of conflict and political uncertainty in the Kashmir Valley have negatively affected the reproductive health of women with an epidemic of stress-related disorders. For women, doctors say that ongoing conflict means a perpetual cycle of post-traumatic stress disorder, hormone imbalances and the heavily stigmatized possibility of infertility. Psychologists and psychiatrists confirm the link between mental and emotional strain and physical consequences. Experts recommend counseling for conflict-related disorders and in vitro fertilization for women who can’t conceive.
Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Many residents of Indian-administered Kashmir desire their independence from India, leading to conflict that has been ongoing for more than two decades.
About 15.7 percent of women in the valley of childbearing age will never have a child without clinical intervention, according to a study carried out in 2008 by the Department of Endocrinology at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, the only tertiary care hospital in the valley.