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News & Press: eConnections

Women in Surgery: A perspective from India

Wednesday, May 11, 2016  
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By: Sushma Sagar MBBS, MS, FACS

Two roads diverged in a wood and I…
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference

-Robert Frost

The lines keep echoing in my mind as I sit down to pen down my thoughts on a topic so tender and close to me. Mine is a country where cultural diversity runs in blood. Today, we see India as an emerging nation, riding on varied cultural beliefs and traditions. Technical advancement, digitalization and globalization has enabled many Indians to flourish contributing immensely in the field of Medicine and Information Technology.

The impact of this globalization, digitalization has greatly influenced the patriarchal society and the role of women that existed in India since the rise of civilization. Women, though often worshipped in various form of Goddesses, still face female foeticide and sexual abuse. This has often influenced women to remain indoors to work and support male members of the family and not adding a penny to their name. In a male dominated Indian society, it requires courage and confidence to break the barrier to come out in open and work shoulder to shoulder with men.

When we talk of medical field, especially Surgery, the impact is more visible. Nursing and midwifery was the domain where women found their place and later in Obst and Gynecology. Recently in an Annual meeting of Associations of Surgeons it was projected that for 25,000 surgeons there are only 700 women surgeons and of 12,700 members only 300 women are members of this society, a number too small to be reckoned at any forum.

In India, the social milieu is such that with its orthodox beliefs women are discouraged to take up jobs where most of the time one is surrounded by male colleagues and the working hours sees no night and day. A woman professional has to contribute significantly to household cooking/ home & school management of her kids & elderly parents. The joint family system allows her only balanced independence to pursue her demanding career. Unlike west, most religious festivals & social rituals in India mandate presence of women at the home front. Surgery as elsewhere in the world is equally demanding here also, principally all working days at times amounting to more than 80 hours a week. The male mindset when given a choice to select a candidate for pursuing a surgical specialty often discourages women.

Only now that I am in the field for more than 20 yrs do I realize that only a hard core women who is passionate about opting for surgery can face these challenges bravely by gulping the tears rather rolling them over cheeks. Attire, manor, language, built and height of women surgeon are often more discussed than her surgical skills, hard work and punctuality. “Sister please,” is a word which identifies you soon after your first clinical posting . The atmosphere in the OR and Duty rooms is often not very pleasant and audible and pushes you to stay focused and unwary of the surroundings. Conservative thinking does not allow women to be in the male bastion till they take the charge to boss around.

The path where I am today had torch bearers like Dr.T.S. Kanaka, Asia’s first female neurosurgeon who opted for a career in neurosurgery way back in the 1960s, and struggled hard to get the feel of scalpel.

But the scenario is changing fast with more women reaching at higher positions and mentoring the young ones to join the specialty.

Dr. Sushma Sagar MBBS, MS, FACS, Additional Professor, Division of Trauma Surgery and Critical Care at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India. A course Director and a course faculty for ATLS India program, faculty for National Institute of Disaster Management. With more than 50 Research publications in National and International Journals, she is currently working as Investigator in major trauma related projects as Capacity Building for Advanced Trauma Life Support in India (NDMA ,Reducing the Burden of Injury in India and Australia through Development and Piloting of Improved Systems of Care( DST-AISRF), Capacity building and strengthening of Hospital Infection Control to detect and prevent antimicrobial resistance in India (CDC). She is member of various editorial board, wrote chapters in book, and a manual on School Safety Program in India. Being a founder executive member of Indian Society for Trauma and Acute Care (ISTAC) she is involved with other Teaching and Training program as RTTDC (ACS-COT), PHTLS, BLS and BECC all over the country and the region.