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Over 15k Deaths In 4 Years: How India’s Population Control Measures Are Killing Its Women

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By Debarati Ghosh:

The Story of Chaiti Bai

Unlike every other ordinary day in the Bilaspur district of Chattisgarh, 22 year old Chaiti Bai could not go about her daily chores. She was unwell and weak, suffering from jaundice. At the proposal of the Community Health Centre’s messenger, she agreed to get herself treated from their health officer. However, Chaiti Bai and her husband were given a blank paper to sign on, before she could avail the treatment. Without thinking much of it at the time, her husband, Budh Singh signed it, and got her admitted.

Chattisgarh woman with child. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Chattisgarh woman with child. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

What followed soon revealed the sham that the government’s family policy is. Without any prior information about the nature of the surgery, Chaiti Bai was operated upon, and sterilized. While her husband did not receive a single piece of official documentation from the health workers, Chaiti Bai’s condition worsened. She died the next day on her way to the district hospital, leaving her husband with their two children, and a cheque of Rs. 200,000 from the government.

Chaiti Bai was not the only victim of the sterilization camps that plague India. According to reports, 14 of the 83 women sterilized that day in November 2014 died, while the others had to be hospitalized. The Gaurella Community Health Centre has a target of sterilizing at least 800 women per year. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged for an investigation on this “unfortunate tragedy”; the state award winner for his work on sterilization, who was arrested for the deaths, Surgeon R. K. Gupta blamed the government for the deaths, stated that it was his “moral responsibility” to have performed the sterilizations.

More than 4 million sterilizations were conducted between 2013 and 2014, according to Government figures. The then Health Minister of India, Harsh Vardhan officially stated that the government has recorded 15,264 sterilization related deaths or failed surgeries between April 2009 and March 2013. It’s only with the rise in death tolls at sterilization camps, visibly declining sex ratio and the usage of outdated drugs and procedures like the cycle pumps to inflate their abdomens during the surgeries on hapless women, along with outrage over fowl plays such as the sterilization of the unsuspecting men in return for gun license, that the government’s family planning policies have come under a critical lens of Women Rights organizations and the mainstream media.

The Glitch in the Story

Growing up hearing the slogans of “HUM DO HUMARE DO”, we never quite questioned it, due to its appeal to common sense. The economically and geographically marginalized sections are the primary targets for the state-approved sterilization campaigns that offer a variety of incentives or disincentives for the participants and often employ coercive measures to attain their targets.

While this sounds all too obvious and the government may be applauded for its population control initiatives, something doesn’t quite add up. Questions arise such as:

  • Why are countries like China and Vietnam, with notoriously stringent one-child norm and reproductive restrictions, now removing these rules from their population control policies?
  • What is the role of the western funding agencies like the USAID, World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation or Ford Foundation in this entire picture?
  • And what lies ahead for the Indian economy given the rise in averted births and decline in population, which corresponds to an inevitable dearth of work forces and income generating populace?

These points get us questioning the goal that our government is seeking to attain and bring in the need for a more nuanced approach to the Indian population control policy.

Setting the Record Straight

The attitude to levy sanctions on the reproductive rights of the general population (especially the marginalized sections) goes way back to the times of Darwin and Reverend Malthus, echoed by agencies like the International Planned Parenthood Federation in the 1920s. The contemporary policies on population control can be best described in Amartya Sen’s words as being a “revival of Malthusian thinking in the recent years”. Simply put – letting the poor perish unattended since they are unworthy of life, and focus more on the development of the better race/class/caste.

In a collaborative study conducted on the impact of the Two-Child norm in India, Claire B. Cole notes the impact of India’s receipt of monetary sanctions from western agencies, which range from the targets issued by the Word Bank to avert 40 million births in a span of 10 years or target based economic funding from agencies like the USAID, World Bank, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation. There are several intermediate agents like the Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHA workers, who receive bonuses for every person they motivate to undergo sterilization. What is bothersome about mushrooming internationally funded NGOs and agencies, is their affiliation which lies with the foreign funders and are thereby, not accountable to India. According to the Human Rights Watch’s report in 2012, these approaches have made the sterilization campaigns an exceedingly coercive process.

While the Population Growth Rate in India has fallen to 1.25% in 2014, due to the population momentum, it will continue to grow for at least the next sixty years. In such a situation, we can only expect to see a severe dwindling in the sex ratio and a decrease in the number of girl child in the Indian society. So much for the noise about developmental policies and progress!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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