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In Hindi, saheli, means “female friend,” and only girls can have sahelis. This post is about two sahelis, Farzana and Suman, who, despite spending years on either side of the same wall, have had very different experiences of motherhood.

Farzana was 20 years old when I met her, and she was pregnant for the first time. She’d been married and living with her husband, his parents and sisters-in-law for five years. Everyone was happy about the pregnancy because they had worried that Farzana could not get pregnant. Farzana once confided in me that she had not even started to have her period yet when she was married, she got it for the first time more than a year after her marriage.

It was a difficult pregnancy: Farzana had trouble eating, she gained very little weight, and she was often sick. There was a time when she wasn’t eating much besides chewing on sugar cane. She went to the hospital to deliver, but her daughter died shortly after birth. Farzana was extremely anemic—she told me that she had had only 2 or 3 mg of hemoglobin per deciliter of blood at the time of delivery—and had nearly died. Instead of getting the blood transfusion that she needed, she was turned out of the government hospital and taken to a private hospital, where they took her money but failed to give her blood.

It took a few months for Farzana to get better, but when she did, she got pregnant again. A little more than a year after the birth of her first baby, at home, alone, in the middle of the night, without even candle to light the mud and dung room where she lives, Farzana delivered a baby boy. He was light skinned and chubby. He died when he was a week old. It took 8 or 9 days for Farzana’s milk to dry up, and she eventually had to delete the photos of the baby she’d taken on her husband’s mobile because they made her cry too much.

Farzana is expecting her third baby in May.

Each time I visited Farzana during her first pregnancy, her neighbor and friend, Suman, would poke her head over the cement wall that separated her house from Farzana’s, and start to chat. Eventually, Suman would walk around the wall and come to sit with us in Farzana’s family’s small outdoor sitting area, called an angan.

Suman, a high caste young woman, is a daughter of the village where Farzana is a daughter-in-law. Suman was married in July of 2012, and went to live in her husband’s house, closer to the town. Suman’s husband has a government job working on electric lines in another state, and her father-in-law had a government job as well. In contrast, Farzana is Muslim, an oppressed minority group in India, and her husband does informal manual labor work when he finds it. Unlike Farzana’s mud and dung house, Suman’s new house is cement, and unlike Farzana’s family, who often eat only flat bread and onions or chilis, Suman’s family has plenty to eat.

Last month, I visited Suman in her husband’s house. She was holding a chubby three month old baby boy. He’d been born in the end of August, in the same hospital as Farzana’s first. Suman was exclusively breastfeeding him, and when he wasn’t eating, he was constantly passed around and played with by Suman’s four younger sisters in law. When the little boy was two months old, Suman’s husband took her to her village to introduce the baby to family and friends. Farzana called Suman over to her house, and Suman went to introduce the little boy to her friend.

It’s true that life is worse, on average, in some countries than others, and in some districts than others, and even in some villages than in others. But what I learned from Suman and Farzana is that life and death can be very different for moms and babies—and two sahelis—even on two sides of the same wall.


r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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