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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India , Nov 19 2012 (IPS) - Sreelakshmi, an office executive in a major diagnostic laboratory in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the southern Indian state of Kerala, ends her 11-hour working day to return home at night to a mountain of domestic chores.
At 35, she is already diabetic and vulnerable to disorders ranging from obesity and depression to hypertension and chronic backache.
Health experts warn that Sreelakshmi represents an increasing number of high-powered Indian working women who juggle workplace and domestic responsibilities in an effort to keep everyone around them happy, while disregarding the toll this hectic lifestyle takes on their minds and bodies.
For ambitious, middle-class women such as Sreelakshmi, hailing from a suburban area of Thiruvananthapuram, the office and the home are equally important: they cannot afford to choose one over the other. The result is a harmful mix of stress, anxiety and exhaustion.
Dr. Manjula, a senior medical scientist at the government health institute in Thiruvananthapuram, told IPS that many working women are suffering from “lifestyle diseases”.
A survey conducted by the Mumbai-based Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM) in 2009 revealed that 68 percent of working women suffer from lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes and depression.
Elaborating on the health challenges facing Indian working women, Dr. Mohan Rao, a professor at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health at the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IPS that hunger, anaemia and infectious diseases remain the major epidemiological priorities for working women in India, the majority of whom are in the unorganised sector, working for low wages.
“The working woman struggles between the responsibilities of production and reproduction. They often sacrifice their own health for the health of the family,” he said. “We need to improve the public health system so that women have access to (a range of) healthcare facilities, and not merely reproductive health services. But we also need to improve working conditions, wages (and) provide access to the universal public distribution systems,” he added.
A survey entitled ‘Rising Workplace Obesity Among Indian Women’, conducted by Healthji.com in association with Leisa’s Secret, a firm that sells weight-loss products, revealed that about 80 percent of urban working women in the 25-45 age group are experiencing weight gains as a result of a sedentary lifestyle.
Dr. Sreelekha Nair, researcher at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi, told IPS that the health problems arising from a sedentary life style have reached pandemic levels, with far-reaching economic, environmental and social consequences.
Depression is another major challenge for working women.
Psychiatrists say the inability to perform as well as expected in the workplace, non-achievement of targets, missing deadlines and constant worry about shirking family responsibilities could lead to clinical depression.
Dr. Roy Kuruvila, a well-known psychiatrist in Chennai, told IPS that stressful working environments affect women more than men, as the former have fewer outlets for venting their anxiety or frustration.
“Social support and encouragement are needed to decrease the tensions of working women,” he added.
The problem reaches deep into family life, impacting parenting as well. A five-member study team, led by Dr. M.K.C. Nair, director of the Child Development Centre in the Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram, found that there was less breastfeeding among working mothers than non-working mothers.
“An exclusive breastfeeding rate of 54.28 percent was reported among non-working mothers and a much lower rate, 29.52 percent, among working mothers.” Over 77 percent of “working women quoted lack of maternity leave beyond three months as the major impediment to exclusive breast feeding”, the study found.
Doctors practicing the Indian Systems of Medicine opine that most working women avoid routine check-ups due to time constraints. They advise women to keep a careful watch for endometriosis, breast cancer, cervical spondylosis, insomnia, hypothyroidism and hair loss.
Dr. V.S. Ambal, a physician at the Santhigiri Health Care Research Centre at Pothencode in Thiruvananthapuram, said that excess work also leads to menstrual disorders and other gynaecological problems.
“Ayurveda disallows disparate food combinations, which damage internal organs, and advises the intake of natural food. There has been a major shift in the food habits of working women in cities, who prefer to have fast and packaged food due to work pressure, standard of living and convenience,” she told IPS.
Studies and surveys suggest that consumption of fast foods, which contain a high percentage of salt, sugar and preservatives, is on the rise.
An ASSOCHAM survey conducted this year revealed that 67 percent of working women admitted to switching away from traditional food items that are nutritious, simple and easy to digest to fast foods loaded with empty calories.
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