Changing how the world thinks about nursing

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Girl Talk

February 20, 2011 -- Today a Press Trust of India piece reported on a plan to open a school in Uttar Pradesh to provide training in nursing and other fields for "eunuchs." By that the piece presumably means hijras, the minority of Indians who, generally speaking, were born with male physical attributes but behave in certain ways associated with females; they may or may not be castrated. Many hijras survive by providing sexual services or by begging, though they also play ceremonial roles in society, since they are thought to have spiritual powers. As the piece notes, hijras have long suffered ostracization and discrimination, and the new school is an effort to provide them with "general education" as well as "vocational training in sewing, nursing, computers, beauty care and cooking." This is a list of activities traditionally associated with females (except for "computers," but we doubt the students will be learning to write software). In fact, nursing is a modern science profession for men and women that requires intensive education, not just a series of "guest lecturers," as this school will have. We realize that in many places you need not get advanced training to have the word "nursing" in your job title, since many engaged in basic care tasks operate under nurses' supervision. But the effect of this lumping of the profession in with "sewing" and "beauty care" will still be to suggest that it is more of a traditional female pursuit than a modern profession, and of course, work that is a good fit for those with few other options.

The headline for the piece appearing on the Daily News & Analysis website was "'School' for eunuchs to give them lessons in nursing, computers." The piece describes the school in the Bareilly district as a "unique effort to bring eunuchs into the social mainstream," and it notes that the school will be called Aas (hope). The item relies heavily on quotes from Syed Ehtshaam Huda, "chief medical superintendent and the brain behind the school," who explains:

Eunuchs are generally ostracised by society. They have the full right to live like normal people. . . . There is a need to identify and address problems being faced by eunuchs. . . The eunuchs will be trained in personality development skills and made aware about their fundamental rights and duties. . . The schools will not have permanent teachers. Instead guest lecturers from the field of academics, social, judiciary, economic and science will be invited to answer queries of eunuchs.

HijrasHuda explains that the school will (in the piece's words) "not only provide general education, but will also give them vocational training in sewing, nursing, computers, beauty care and cooking," and "offer rehabilitation services." Huda also explains that the school is now "run on a weekly basis," but "will start operating daily." The piece adds supportive quotes from others, including "noted historian" UP Arora, who says that (in the piece's words) "eunuchs have had a glorious past and such steps were needed to ameliorate their living conditions."

This certainly sounds like a promising initiative, but it is unhelpful to include "nursing" with the "vocational training" tasks on this list, which seem to be largely a collection of pursuits that have historically been associated with females. Yes, there is "computers," but we assume this refers to basic operational skills, rather than advanced training that might lead to careers in creating hardware or software, or systems analysis. The basic idea seems to be that nursing is a female task (why isn't engine repair on this list?). In fact, there are male nurses in India, though they clearly face serious challenges.

Another implication is that nursing is something that can be learned in a series of "lessons" given by "guest lecturers"--at an institution this piece at times calls a "school," with quotation marks--to students who may not have any particular academic preparation. This also seems to be an example of the persistent tendency to regard nursing as a good career option for those with few other options in mainstream society. It's true that basic care tasks can be done without advanced training, and part of the issue here probably is that those tasks have long been considered under the general heading of "nursing." Perhaps it would be better if we could simply describe such tasks as "basic health care" or something similar. Of course, it's not clear from this news item to what extent the problem is the terminology of the item, and how much it is the terminology the school itself uses.

In any case, to actually become a professional nurse requires sustained, rigorous science training. So we hope no one gets the idea that the school described in this piece will be training nurses.

See the Press Trust of India article "School' for eunuchs to give them lessons in nursing, computers," published February 20, 2011 on the Daily News & Analysis website of India.