Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Taking the Easy Way Out

Dr. A. L. Sharada

Director, Population First

Yesterday's report on the misogynist, rape posts by boys from a reputed school on a WhatsApp group sent shock waves across the nation. Many parents are petrified. I am sure, the girl students are also nervous. 

We need to act as this is the tip of the iceberg. The number of rapes and murders committed by young adults and adolescents reminds me of the filth that the sea throws back at us on Marine Drive during high tide in monsoons. The filth we are exposing our children through unregulated internet and social media is creating dehumanised young generation. I have been looking at some of the music videos of Yo Yo Honey Singh and  looking at the translation of the lyrics. I feel nauseous and sick, thinking how could someone promote violent sex and rape so blatantly. We don't watch Yo Yo Honey Singh right, we go to concerts by Shujaat Khan and Shiv Kumar Sharma, right. The culture gap between us and the youth we have not even thought of it.  I have been experiencing panic attacks just thinking about what must be happening to a confused, high on hormones adolescent who has no options of healthy conversations on sex, sexuality and relationships!!!

Time we introspect our responsibility towards children. Some parents said yesterday in a conversation, "how do we rob the innocence of the children by exposing them to issues like rape !!" I can understand but we have no option but to speak, move beyond good touch bad touch. Let's recognize that they are exposed to the toxic pop culture, rape videos and cyber predators. We need to pull our socks up and demand for good sex and sexuality education in schools.  Being prudish is not going to help. Let's face it head on.

It is sad that the only action that the school could think of is suspension, further marginalising and stigmatising the boys. The parents and students should undergo intense counselling sessions, individually and in groups to deal with the situation. 

I can understand how traumatic it is for the parents to know that their children are involved in such activities. I am sure they are the normal, well-intentioned parents like all of us. Let's not be judgmental about them. It could have  been our child also. Because increasingly, family and parental influence space is being encroached by mobiles, social media and pop culture. 

It's a serious issue. Let's not take the easy way out.

Source: @unwomen 

Quick Trials Not at the Cost of Fair Trials

Dr. A. L. Sharada

Director, Population First

Glad to see the stand of SC on expeditious trials leading to death sentence. While we all want the process to be expedited and justice assured to rape survivors, setting unrealistic deadlines like in the Disha policy of AP government may compromise investigative and judicial processes.

What we need is :

  • More Forensic labs and specialists
  • Better and professional protocols for investigation
  • No political interference in the police investigation
  • No corruption in the police and judiciary
  • Victim and witness protection
  • Fast track courts to deal with rape cases exclusively etc

Is there anyone willing to invest in these? Too much work and commitment, right? Instead pass populist laws that subvert the whole judicial process. Create a problem while trying to solve a problem.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Building resilience by investing in rural women

Dr Shiny Varghese

Image: Gaon Connection

While Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenage environmental activist has been championing the cause of climate change and many nations have lent support to her cause, there still needs to be a concerted effort to act against climate change which requires investment in sustainable infrastructure for quality services and high political commitment. Change will not be possible with only leaders or activists like her speaking for the cause, but the community needs to come together to build a carbon neutral world. In most countries, rural women and girls face myriad challenges and bear the brunt of climate related disasters, we however tend to forget the important role they play in building climate resilience. The International Day of Rural women recognizes the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty”

Rural women and girls play a very important role in agriculture, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management. Globally, one in three employed women work in the agriculture sector which is time and labour intensive. These women are however neither adequately recognised nor compensated for their work. They also have limited or no access to stable and secure working conditions and social protection (International Labour Organization, 2017).

According to Oxfam (2013), around 80 percent farm work in India is done by women. Women and girls are also responsible to collect fuel and water in most households which are arduous tasks and pose risks to their health and well-being. They also hamper their ability to get good education, access to livelihood opportunities and be decision makers.

In Maharashtra sustained drought has resulted in crop failure, groundwater level depletion, increased climate risks, food insecurity and uncertain cash flows in absence of diversified livelihoods. This has made farming economically unviable for small and marginal farmers. Women and girls have suffered the most when access to natural resources and agriculture has been compromised. Women farmers are as productive and enterprising as their male counterparts, but have lesser access to land, credit, agricultural inputs, markets and high valued agri-food chains and hence no control over financial matters.  Socio-cultural barriers and discriminatory norms further hamper women’s access to productive resources and undermine their hard work even though their workload is increasing due to out-migration of men. Most gender and development indicators reveal that rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women and in turn experience poverty, exclusion as well as the effects of climate change.

The United Nations calls for empowering rural women as a pre-requisite for fulfilling the vision of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and this year’s theme for the International Day of Rural Women, "Rural women and girls building climate resilience" reiterates the fact that a sustainable future is unthinkable of without involving rural women and girls.

One of the most effective and efficient ways to tackle threats posed by climate change is by addressing gender inequality. Realizing that financial independence is a crucial element of empowerment which will enable women to address gender inequality and respond to climate change, we at Population First initiated a program titled Action for Mobilisation of community health initiatives (AMCHI). One of the many aims of the project is to improve women’s access to employable skills. It was felt that this would enable them have access to resources and in the long run empower them to take decisions at the individual, family and community level.

In 45 villages of Shahapur Block of Thane District, a program on vermi-composting was initiated. The program not only addressed issues related to declining agricultural yield by promoting organic farming but also created rural women entrepreneurs. Through this initiative, 45 vermi-composting units were created and are being run by 450 women across 45 villages. The program has not only improved women’s financial capacity but has also helped in promoting leadership which is essential to reduce the effects of climate threats.

Pursuing socio-economic empowerment of women by prioritizing sustainable livelihoods and rights will play a critical role in women adopting low – carbon technologies, spreading knowledge about climate change and help respond to climate change through agricultural production, food security and natural resource management.


Food and Agriculture Organization. (2018). Climate Change: United Nations Climate Change Conference. FAO.
International Labour Organization. (2017). Trends for Women 2017. Geneva: World Employment Social Outlook.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Empowering Girls to be the Agents of Change

Anuja Gulati

Consultant Population First

Picture Source: UNMIK UN Mission (

In 2012, the United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child to raise awareness about all issues concerning gender inequality and discrimination faced by girls around the world.  This day provides an opportunity to highlight, discuss and take action to advance rights and opportunities for girls everywhere.

We at Population First have been working to empower adolescent girls in Shahapur Block of Thane District as part of our Action for Mobilisation of Community Health Initiatives (AMCHI) Project. As part of this program we sensitise families and communities to create an enabling environment for girls to be enrolled and retained in school so that they can reach their full potential. We also work towards enhancing life skills of adolescents by building their health, social and economic assets, influencing their perspectives on gender and increasing possibilities of their leadership at the community level. We do this by providing adolescent girls with information on physical, sexual and reproductive health and linking them to appropriate services.

On this International Day of the Girl Child we would like to share some feedback from the ground. These are the stories of our adolescent girls from Ambarje village of Shahapur Block of Thane District.

Thirteen year old Pranali, who is studying in the ninth grade, takes pride in stating that she is part of the Enjoy Group of adolescent girls formed as part of the AMCHI project. She says “we are a total of 42 members in the group. As part of the group meetings we were given information on a range of subjects. It was for the first time I attended a session on body mapping and got to learn about body parts especially the reproductive organs. I would like to attend more such sessions as there is no other place from where we can get information like this. Even our teacher at school does not talk to us about these issues”. She further adds that the facilitator creates a nurturing and learning environment in the group and they do not hesitate to ask even the most embarrassing questions.

Pranali’s friend, 13 year old Akanksha adds; “menstruation is a subject that is never discussed either at school or amongst friends. At the group meeting we were told about why menstruation occurs, how to maintain hygiene during our periods and how to wash and dry menstrual cloth and dispose menstrual pads. We were also informed of a scheme about low cost sanitary napkins being available through the school. We discussed this with our teacher, who after a fortnight helped us get these pads. Each girl can now buy a packet of six pads for seven rupees.”

The sessions have not just helped the girls to understand their bodies and physical health requirements better, but also built their communication and negotiation skills as shared by Praṇali who says “we were told in the sessions that we should eat green leafy vegetables, salads, peanuts, jaggery and channa to help improve our haemoglobin levels”. At school we get a peanut and gur ladoo every day, however the ladoo tasted very bad. After the session we formed a small group and informed our principal about the same. We told her that the ladoo was so bad that most girls were throwing it every day. She talked to the person in-charge of the Ahaar scheme and ensured that the ladoo we get tasted better. We could do this only because we got the information that such a ladoo is good for improving our health and learnt to put our point of view to our teachers and adults clearly.”

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Let’s commit to invest in our elderly…this International Day of Older Persons

Anuja Gulati

Consultant, Population First

Population ageing is an inevitable consequence of the demographic transition experienced by most countries across the world. Declining fertility and increasing longevity have resulted in an increasing proportion of elderly persons aged 60 years and above. As per the 2011 census, India had around 104 million elderly persons – 53 million females and 51 million males. The number of elderly in the 60+ age group is expected to increase to 320 million by 2050, constituting 20% of the total population. Given the nature of demographic transition, such a huge increase in the population of the elderly is bound to create several societal issues, magnified by sheer volume.  A majority of the people at 60+ are socially and economically poor. Elderly women are more vulnerable on all fronts compared to elderly men. Nearly three out of five single older women are poor and about two thirds of them are completely economically dependent.

The elderly are more vulnerable due to poor health. A high proportion of the elderly reporting poor health are the oldest old (Age 80+), poor, illiterate and widows. A recent study[1] shows that a significant percentage of the elderly have acute and chronic morbidities. Morbidities are more prevalent in elderly women compared to elderly men, especially in urban areas. The study also showed that nearly two thirds of the elderly reported suffering from at least one chronic ailment like arthritis, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc. They also lack access to health care facilities. 

The vulnerability of the aged is aggravated by urbanization and a recent shift from the joint family system to nuclear families. This has a huge impact on the psychological and emotional health of the elderly, leading to neglect, lack of respect and sometimes abuse and exploitation.
Family has traditionally been the primary source of support for the elderly in India. The elderly depend primarily on their families for economic and material support. In spite of the strong preference to live with families, one in ten elderly women lives alone. With nuclearization of families, the traditional support system for the elderly is dwindling, making them even more vulnerable. Social isolation amongst the elderly is another critical issue of concern.

The profile of elderly indicates low level of educational attainment particularly amongst elderly women. Over half the elderly report not having formal education with a higher proportion, almost two thirds amongst women.

Work participation among elderly men in India is as high as 39% as against 11% amongst women. Although work participation amongst women is low, they contribute to family chores enabling other adult family members to work. A majority of elderly (71%) work due to economic necessity and not by choice. This is particularly true of elderly women. There is a close link between current work participation and poverty and illiteracy.

Older women are particularly disadvantaged, facing structural, social and economic inequalities throughout their lives. The experience of widowhood in Indian society is generally associated with many deprivations and has many implications for the health and well-being of older women. Further, certain traditional widowhood practices result in situations of violence and abuse and pose a serious threat to their health and well- being. Widowhood is one of the leading factors associated with poverty, loneliness and isolation, as a widow suffers indignity, often losing her self-reliance and respect. Many widows are ignored by both family and society, including their own children and are left to fend for themselves.

Poor health, age related morbidities, income insecurity, illiteracy and physical and economic dependencies are factors that tend to make the elderly, especially elderly women vulnerable

Recognizing the vulnerabilities of the elderly, the Government of India drafted the National Policy on Older Persons and has initiated and implemented several programs and schemes for social, economic and health security of older persons.  However access to these schemes and programs can be improved.

On this International Day of older persons, it is important to focus immediate attention on creating an enabling environment and decent living for the elderly, especially women. For this, it is suggested that Government, Multilateral agencies and Corporates invest in:

·                     Undertaking studies to understand increased morbidity and disability amongst elderly women, despite their longer life expectancy.
·                     Mobilizing greater resources for geriatric care, especially care of elderly women.
·                     Developing health promotion programs with outreach facilities and other services such as medical insurance to meet the long term care needs of elderly women.
·                     Addressing financial insecurity amongst the elderly women by formation of Self-Help Groups (SHG). These SHG’s would be formed with an objective of improving their livelihood and enabling them to become economically active through small loans and other required support.
·                     Ensuring convergence between various government departments for improved access to services and schemes for the elderly
·                     Promoting and assuring the participation of elderly women in the process of development.
·                     Amending laws that discriminate against women with regard to property and inheritance rights, providing housing support for elderly women who are property less and creating employment opportunities for them free of discrimination.
·                     Developing training programs to build life coping skills of elderly women.
·                     Providing services for older disabled women and disabled women who grow old.

[1] UNFPA India (2012), ‘Report on Status of Elderly in Selected States of India, 2011

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Why is women’s right to safe and legal abortion being compromised?

Dr Shiny Varghese
Programme Manager, Population First

“My husband does not use any contraceptive method and I am very afraid of undergoing a sterilization operation……I did not want another child and hence wanted to get an abortion done when I became pregnant……however the doctor in the Government hospital refused to provide me with abortion services as I did not have an ultrasound report and he suspected that I had come after sex determination……I had to then go to an unqualified local health service provider to get my pregnancy terminated”, a woman from a vulnerable community of a city in Punjab, who had severe complications after an unsafe abortion.

Abortion services have been legal in India under certain conditions since the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in 1971.  As per the Act, abortion is legal if the continuation of pregnancy would involve risk to life of pregnant woman or cause grave physical and mental injury, including pregnancy due to rape; risk of physical and mental abnormality in child and contraceptive failure. They are legal up to 20 weeks of gestation. Pregnancy can be terminated by a registered medical practitioner registered with the State medical register.

Unfortunately in an overzealous effort to implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, the law pertaining to sex selection, implementing authorities on various occasions instead of monitoring sex determination, target abortion services, not understanding that abortion is not the cause of the problem of sex selection, it is only the consequence of it. This misunderstanding and a perceived quick fix solution, has on various occasions resulted in restricting women’s access to safe abortion services, especially second trimester abortion. Anecdotal evidence has shown that in order to curb sex selection, access to abortion is being limited by:

  • Restricting access to medical abortion, with pharmacists refusing to stock medical abortion pills.
  • Pregnancy tracking, to ensure pregnant women don’t undergo sex selective abortion, thereby compromising on a woman’s right to legal abortion for genuine reasons.
  • Suggestions that contraceptive failure should not be included as a condition for second trimester abortion.
  • Provision of abortion services only if followed by sterilization.

Reactions such as the above have increased challenges faced by women in accessing safe abortion services, with most women commonly resorting to unsafe abortions at the hands of untrained providers.

A recent study undertaken by the Guttmacher Institute brought out that around 15.6 million abortions take place in India every year (Guttmacher Institute, 2017). The study also revealed that of the total abortions done, 81% abortions were medication abortions, and with access to abortion, especially medical abortion getting restricted, a very large percentage of women seeking medical abortion would access facilities that are unsafe and illegal adding to the burden of maternal morbidity and mortality.  It is estimated that around eight per cent of maternal mortality occurs due to unsafe abortion.  Abortion related complications especially those arising from unsafe abortions are also the third major cause of maternal deaths, after haemorrhage and sepsis.

While it is extremely important to implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal diagnostic techniques Act, to prevent the practice of gender biased sex selection, the Medical termination of Pregnancy Act which aims to prevent unsafe abortion should not be compromised in any manner. The two Acts should be implemented in letter and spirit without impinging on the object of each other.

This presents one aspect as to why women’s access to abortion services is restricted, however abortion services in India need further strengthening by;
  • Expanding the base of qualified and trained providers in rural areas equipped to conduct safe abortion
  • Building capacities of paramedical staff on counselling women during and after abortion
  • Undertaking communication campaigns on women’s right to safe and legal abortion
  • Conducting audits of both public and private sector facilities to ensure quality service provision
  • Investing in technology and research as well as better clinical practices

 Access to safe abortion is one of the many aspects to ensure women’s right to quality reproductive health which will also help her attain autonomy and equality. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Warp and Weft of Life

Swathi Chaganty

For the last five years we have been seeing the resurgence of the small-town family stories in our Hindi film industry. And its success at the box office as well as the ratings from the critics indicates that we as a nation are willing to immerse ourselves in the stories of authentic characters and relationships.

And one such character that has evolved over the years is the female lead in these stories. Once characterised as one-dimensional village or small-town girl, supporting the male protagonist, a naïve prop, a damsel in distress, has now slowly evolved into educated, progressive, ambitious and somewhat idealistic young woman. Be it Jaya from Toilet Ek Prem Katha or Bittu from Bareilly Ki Barfi, be it Sandhya from Dum Laga Ke Haisha or Sugandha from Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, these women are strong, opinionated, assertive and a welcome sight on screen. However, on the other hand, we still do have female characters like Radhika Apte’s Gayatri from Padman from a small town in Madhya Pradesh who still believe that it is better to die in shame and silence then to disclose your discomfort of menstruation; and that is the truth of the matter, and depiction of these characters is also important for us to know the long road ahead of us in terms of addressing gender based issues. But then there is another character that graced the silver screen in 2017, Mamta from Sui Dhaaga. 

On cursory glance Mamta is anything but Jaya or Sandhya. She is the head covering, kitchen bound, hardworking daughter-in-law; someone we have seen before. So much so, Anushka Sharma who plays Mamta initially did not want to play this character despite loving the script. And when asked on FC Unfiltered by Anupama Chopra, Sharma replied that she was not confident that she would be able to convince the audience of the character of Mamta since she was quite the opposite in her real life.

So, what makes this character stand out, why does Mamta stand with the Jayas and Bittus of our new small town and village girls? She might follow the rules of the milieu, fulfil the responsibilities of the house, and look homely which lends authenticity to the character from a small town in India but there is strength in her quiet presence, and she is definitely not at loss for words when the need arises. She is not the “bechaari” that Harleen Madam, a ready-made garment manufacturing owner, an interesting rather one-dimensional foil for Mamta, thinks her to be.

She is self-respecting voice of reason when inherently jovial and unaware Mauji, her husband, is insulted at a wedding by his boss. She is a leader that encourages him to make his own path—as a tailor, a trade that was his and his family’s forte once upon a time. And it is her decisiveness and persuasion that actually leads the couple to compete in the Fashion Fund in the third act. While the movie rests on the shoulders of the hero’s story arc, his relationship with his cantankerous father and ailing mother, conflict with his brother, and his struggle to make it in the tailoring business, the story of the heroine is not left behind. Mamta is a brilliant negotiator and adept at marketing and advertising much to Mauji’s surprise; not because he was indifferent to her talent or contribution, but because the “milieu” of a working-class family does not offer them the time or the privacy to get to know each other, and neither does the conservative set up help them which the movie subtly presents to us. It is through this journey of having their own business that both the characters learn about each other and their relationship develops which is crucial for the characters to succeed in their endeavour.

While the story draws our attention to the dying art of handloom, and small-town professions like tailoring and weaving in presence of the ready-made garment factories and malls, it is the realness of the characters of Mauji and Mamta, their relationship, and their trials and tribulations that give us an insight into the lives of real artisans. More often than not these artisanal tradition runs in the family where both the husband and wife contribute to the product with their skills and the decline in any artisanal industry impacts both the men and women, more so women because of the lack of financial autonomy. Apart from the relationship of the two characters the movie sensitively shows their aspirations of recognition and furthering their art going unfulfilled, and their desperation and frustration as they see their inheritance being poached by computers and machines for printing on cheap textiles that will be flooded back into those very same malls and shops they pass by every day. Both Mamta and Mauji go through a journey that knocks their naiveté down but they rise up to the challenge and make their dream come true as partners.

While there is a long way for us to go in depicting different types of layered female characters and layered relationships vis a vis their male counterparts, Mamta definitely stands among the new age rural women shaping our country’s stories on screen and her relationship with Mauji reflects the thousands of relationships that already exist among our working-class and rural professions and industries.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Many Colours of Indian Indigenous People

Dr. Shiny Varghese

Indigenous people are those who inherit and practice unique cultures. With 370 million such people living across 90 countries, they represent more than 5000 different cultures, and speak over 7000 languages in the world. Though they form less than 5 percent of the population, they account for 15 percent of the poorest in the world. What is noteworthy is that people have retained their social, cultural, economic and political characteristics which are distinct from the societies of which they are a part of. The closeness to environment, adherence to their own culture, customs and traditional beliefs make the life of indigenous people a distinguished one. Although they remain one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in India, the problems of these people remain more or less the same, across the world. The protection of their rights, the land they live in, limited or no access to essential resources and their identity are some of the major issues that needs to be addressed.

The tribes of India
In India, there are 705 ethnic groups or indigenous people who are notified as Scheduled Tribes (ST’s) spread across the States and Union Territories of India. As per census 2011, their population is 104.3 million and they comprise around 9% of the total population of India with most of them residing in rural areas. Women amount to almost half of the tribal population. The sex ratio is also favourable as compared to other social groups with 990 females for every 1000 males. There are various views surrounding the status of these women in India.  Some say that the status of the women in tribal societies seems to be better than as they are characterised by egalitarian principles while others are of the opinion that it is more or less similar to the women in the general society. One of the most important determinants has been whether the women live in a matriarchal or patriarchal society. The Garo and the Khasi tribes assign the women a higher position due to the matrilineal descent and inheritance of property through female line. Even in a patriarchal society, the husband doesn’t always play a dominant role. For instance the Gond woman enjoys equal status and freedom as men in the social life, whereas on the other hand, even though the Tharu have patrilocal system of residence, wives who are known to have the knowledge of sorcery and witchcraft are dominant in the relationships. In the domestic spheres, Juang women take part in the decision-making process; however she is not consulted during important decisions.

Bodh Tribe of Ladakh
As per a study done by Veena Bhasin (2007), tribal communities too have son preference but they do not discriminate against girls by female infanticide. Though boys and girls do not have similar inheritance laws, girls are not subjected to abuse, hatred or strict social norms. They are free to participate in social events, dancing and other recreational programmes. Among Bhutias of Sikkim and Bodhs of Ladakh, there is no distinction in terms of the work done by men and women, although heavier tasks are done by men. Both men and women run small businesses and women also work as porters. There are many other privileges enjoyed by some of the tribal women of India which include freedom in selection of life partner, contributing to the local economy by participating in agriculture and other sectors, possibility of remarriage after divorce or death of husband, freedom to talk to whom so ever they please, man or woman of any caste or creed, freedom to exercise their voting rights.

However, some of the drawbacks include that a woman’s supremacy is restricted within the family domain and does not extend to social or political spheres. The religious domain has also been primarily a field for male dominance and a strategy to deprive women of public authority.
The present condition of tribal women is not an accidental affair but has evolved due to several factors in the past. By contributing economically, women have acquired social freedom which is quite remarkable in its scope. These women also toil very hard sometimes more than men, however they are not considered backward and no men tell them what to do and what not do. Even the patriarchal society, conveys respect rather than envy between the genders. The women in these areas are far more independent and powerful than modern sub-wives.

It is inspiring to hear stories of Madhumati Debbarma, Sandhya Rani Chakhma and Hatlhing Doungel who have fought against the odds and have been elected as members of the male dominated district councils in the tribal areas of northeast India. They have had to struggle against patriarchal mindsets, to encourage women participation for overall development and welfare of women in their regions.

Katkari tribes of Maharashtra
Similarly, in the areas of Shahapur Thane, there are many tribal communities residing such as the Thakurs, Katkari, Koli Mahadeo, Kokana, however Thakurs and Katkari communities form the majority. Population First through its programme AMCHI has been working with these communities for over a decade and the experiences and insights gained through the regular interaction has been very inspiring. In tribal hamlets like Palichapada, where access to water was an issue for a very long time, women with a little handholding changed the face of the village with their persistent efforts. There have been instances where women groups in these hamlets have led to increased health and education outcomes too. It is interesting to witness that women are decision makers in most of these communities.

August 9th commemorates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It marks the beginning of the sessions on Indigenous Populations at the UN in 1982. It is fascinating to see how lessons and experiences from tribal areas can be taken to inculcate values and morals in terms of gender equity and equality in the modern urban societies. It is essential that we work towards revitalizing, preserving and promoting indigenous cultures and share good practices through various platforms.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Sanctions Are Not the Solution

Anuja Gulati: Consultant, Population and development

At a press conference held on 25th May 2019, Yoga guru Baba Ramdev called upon the Government to implement punitive measures to contain population growth. He advocated for the denial of voting rights, contesting elections and benefits of Government schemes to the third child. He also added that if such a law is enacted people will not give birth to more children irrespective of the religion they belong to.

Punitive and coercive measures like restricting the rights of the third born are regressive, discriminatory and violate the principles of informed choice and human rights.

India has been a signatory to various International conventions and treaties like the Tehran UN Conference of Human rights in 1968, the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, the London summit on Family Planning 2012, etc.  and in doing so, has committed to ensure that human rights are respected and protected in family planning programs. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development which called upon States “to ensure that Family Planning programs abide by human rights norms and professional standards….. and that the provision of contraceptive services are free from coercion and discrimination, ensure informed decision making, respect privacy and confidentially and respect the dignity of all persons”, marked a paradigm shift in India’s family planning program from a target and technology driven program, to a program which focused on empowering women and emphasizing on a human rights and social development centered approach. A coercive approach like the one suggested, would contradict India’s commitment to rights based Family planning and prevent individuals from deciding freely and responsibly the number and spacing of children they choose to have.

India has made substantial progress in the last few decades in terms of expanding access to contraceptive methods. Contraceptive usage has tripled from 13% of married women in 1970 to around 54% in 2015-16. Similarly the Total Fertility Rate has more than halved from 5.7 in 1996 to 2.3 in 2016 with 24 States and Union territories achieving replacement level fertility. While family size is decreasing and people are opting for smaller families, they want to have a particular sex composition of their families with one or two boys because of the deeply entrenched preference for sons. This has resulted in gender biased sex selection. The Sex Ratio at birth is abysmally low at 898 girls per 1000 boys (SRS 2014-16). Imposing the two child norm and exercising coercive measures would further advance son preference and daughter aversion, thereby increasing sex selection and elimination.

A look at decline in fertility shows that there has been a consistent decline in fertility across the Country and across all religions. The Total Fertility Rate declined from 2.7 to 2.2 between NFHS III in 2005-06 to NFHS IV in 2015-16. During the same period, TFR among Hindus declined from 2.59 to 2.13; for Christians from 2.34 to 1.99; for Muslims from 3.4 to 2.61 and for Sikhs from 1.95 to 1.58. Thus there is a consistent fall in fertility across the Country and across religious groups and communities. The pace of decline can be enhanced by improving access to quality contraceptive services and offering full, free and informed choices. 

A study on understanding the implications of the two child norm on Panchayats, undertaken in 2003 in five States of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan, (Panchayti Raj and the two child norm: Implications and Consequences, Mahila Chetna Manch, January 2003) brought out that coercive policies are exclusionary and largely impact the vulnerable. Of the disqualifications due to the two child norm, Schedule caste, schedule tribe and other backward class representatives formed a very large percentage. The study also revealed that women bore a large brunt of the policy, with many women deserted or divorced after giving birth to the third child or forced into having an abortion, which in most cases was conducted in unregistered and unsafe conditions to hide the fact that she was pregnant a third time.

India with 356 million young people in the 10-24 years age group has the world’s largest youth population, comprising 28% of the total population of the Country. It is likely that this population will add to the population momentum.  Hence, India’s Family planning program should be planned in a manner to address the contraceptive needs of young people. This can be done by empowering them with information and services. Although India’s family planning program provides a cafeteria approach with a basket of choices, the reality is that female sterilization continues to be the most commonly promoted contraceptive constituting 75.3% of modern family planning methods used (NFHS IV).  The use of spacing or reversible contraceptives methods has increased but the increase has been minimal from 5.6% in 1991-92 (NFHS I) to 11.2% in 2015-16 (NFHS IV). With a fairly large proportion of girls (26.8%, NFHS IV) being married off below the legal age at marriage in India, and the unmet need among young people in the 15-24 years age group being 22% as against 12.9% of the overall unmet need, the family planning program should be positioned on addressing the needs of younger couples This could be done by:
  •          Involving men as equal partners in family planning
  •          Increasing basket of choices.
  •          Reaching out to couples and individuals with choices that best suit their reproductive intentions.
  •     Improving quality of services through effective training of service providers in counseling, seeking informed consent, protecting client’s dignity, ensuring confidentiality and privacy.
  •     Integrating of gender and rights based values and skills through pre-service and in-service programs for service providers.
  •      Building capacities and skills of service providers to provide contraceptive services to young people in an unbiased and non - judgmental manner.

Coercive measures are dysfunctional, hence family planning should be voluntary and rights based, focusing on enhancing reach, improving quality, promoting informed choices to enable couples reach their reproductive intentions.