World Population Day: Why India feels its women should bear the burden of family planning
The nation is on its way to becoming the world's most populous country by 2024. That's despite being the first country to adopt state-sponsored family planning.
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"Aurat koi bachha paida karne wali machine nahin hain" has been a strong refrain of angry Indian women in their fight for equality. Loosely translated, it means, "women aren't baby-making machines".
The credit for this popular one-liner perhaps goes to Bollywood of the 1980s, still drunk on the heady days of the Emergency and forced sterilisations — the "hum do, hamare do" days (there was even an eponymous film released in 1984) — when cheesy dialogues and cringe-worthy movies ruled. An era which has been labelled the worst for women (cinema) in a largely male-dominated industry.
Yet, look at the irony.
Even in its cringe-worthiness, there was an attempt to draw attention to the plight of women, burdened with child-bearing and -rearing as their primary vocation — something that hasn't changed much decades later.
In fact, India was the first country to adopt a state-sponsored family planning initiative — the National Family Planning Programme — back in 1952, with the aim of bringing down the population growth rate to propel economic development. A decade later, the ’60s saw the government making pleas for "full stop after two or three children". The decade after that saw the campaign exhorting a cap on the third child.
While that's history, the burden on women hasn't eased much over the years — nor has the ever-growing population.
More than just baby-making machines. [Credit: Reuters photo]
Sample this: India is on its way to becoming the world's most populous country by 2024, surpassing China.
While this is two years later than previously estimated, India's population is projected to touch 1.5 billion people by 2030, according to a UN forecast.
Every year, 2.6 crore babies are added to India’s population, now estimated to be around 1.25 billion (as per Census 2011, the country's population is 1.21 billion).
While such figures normally start doing the rounds every year ahead of World Population Day, the idea behind flashing these numbers is not to create panic, but awareness about what is so horribly wrong with our population control drive.
The ever-churning machine
According to a recent National Health Mission report, of the total 14,73,418 sterilisations in 2017-2018, 93 per cent of them were performed on women.
While the numbers have come down from the earlier 98 per cent, it still shows how women alone are forced to take responsibilty for contraception and family planning. These numbers gain greater significance given that sterilisation has been at the centre of India's family planning drives, despite botched-up efforts, often at the cost of women's lives in the past.
The report also found not only are male sterilisation services inadequately available, but the stigma around vasectomy has been largely deterring men from opting for it, despite the fact that vasectomy (male sterilisation/temporary contraception) is an easier procedure than tubectomy (blocking of the female fallopian tubes to prevent the eggs from reaching the uterus).
The 'Emergency' alert
Experts insist that the reluctance of Indian men to undergo sterilisation is mainly due to the social stigma as a result of the forced sterilisations conducted during the Emergency, besides the lack of availability of sterilisation services.
It has been also observed that the misinformation regarding "sterlisation robbing men of their virility" is so steeped in the male psyche now that it's difficult to undo such myths overnight. But that doesn't mean the state has not tried. It has — but it has not pushed the men enough.
Sterlisation has been at the centre of India's family planning drives, despite botched-up efforts. [Credit: Reuters photo]
It would be wrong to say that family planning measures have not seen any shifts over the years. Our mindset has also changed — from measures like the withdrawal contraceptive method (withdrawing before ejaculation) to intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUCDs) to the advent of the contraceptive pill.
But how far are these temporary methods completely safe, notwithstanding the vigorous campaigning by pharma giants?
According to Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, temporary methods always come with side effects.
"For example, both IUCDs and pills make periods irregular. Counselling services are poor and because of the ostracisation during periods, women do not like these. Also, societal norms do not put enough emphasis on women’s agency to make these choices viable. For 77 per cent women undergoing sterilisation, it is their first brush with birth control. The level of empowerment needed for temporary methods to be adopted is not there,” Muttreja was quoted as saying in this Indian Express report.
Are we serious about it?
While numbers alone are not enough to unravel an untold story, there are enough facts to uncover one truth — India was never serious about population control.
Family planning, or the lack of it, was never seen beyond controlling a woman's body — that is precisely why the Emergency's forced male sterlisations became such a big political issue.
But what about the women? The female population of India has been forced to bear this burden forever.
Another factor that points towards the state's great insincerity towards population control is the fact that India never really tried exploring adoption (of children) as a smarter choice for family planning. Instead, the state found it easier, and more profitable, to introduce the concepts of IVF technology and commercial surrogacy to childless couples.
As a result, it's women who continue to remain a tool even at the hands of the state — from "bachha paida karne wali machine" (with apologies for the crassness) to "stop at three children, no, two, no, one". Or, for that matter, a government which feels family planning goals are limited to "saas-bahu sammelans".
Just stop this nonsense.