There was an initial flicker of mild curiosity in her eyes. She may have wondered what the woman with curly yellow hair was doing at the end of the bed, but that was quickly replaced by a distracted, more primal look, her eyes simply registered pain. She was in active labour, having regular contractions but not quite dilated enough to begin pushing. Pain for pain's sake, no pay off for the effort. Her sweat-stained bright orange cotton tunic top was draped over her distended belly, her hand gripped the metal rungs of her hospital bed and beads of sweat stood out on her forehead. She didn’t make a sound, all her effort instead was focused on enduring the closely spaced contractions.
In Nepal when women give birth in maternity wards at the hospital they don’t go seeking a painless delivery with epidurals and analgesics. We were told that pain medications are reserved only for unspecified “special circumstances”. I could hear my Canadian colleague ask “Isn’t a painful labour enough reason”?
In place of intravenous drips and analgesic gas there were the soothing hands of mothers and didis. Backs were being massaged, thighs and feet were being rubbed, and water was being offered to parched mouths. In fact, aside from some of the doctors and interns, there was a complete absence of men in the ward. The men, banned from the labour wards, were all squatting on the floor or in the stairwell outside the labour ward. They had a distinctly different look in their eyes, a continuum from boredom, the ones who had been through this before, to rank fear, clearly the first-timers.
Birthing in Nepal, it seems, remains firmly behind a gender curtain where women circle the wagons and silently, painfully usher in the next generation.