By Madhura Chakraborty:
The government is waging a war on women’s bodies in the name of providing reproductive healthcare.
Since 1975, the year of the Emergency, when 6.2 million men were forcibly sterilised in a widely-criticised move, the burden of reducing fertility has squarely fallen on the shoulders of women. In 2013-14, 4 million sterilisations were performed across the country, of which only about 100,000 were performed on men. In 2014, 15 women in Chhattisgarh died due to botched sterilisation operations in government camps. It is important to remember that India spends 85% of its total family planning budget on sterilisation.
The information above paints quite an accurate overall picture of how the government views and treats women. Over 20 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, which saw a paradigmatic shift from ‘population control’ to a discourse centred around ‘choice’ and ‘reproductive health’, nothing much has changed on the ground for women in India. In 1991, Deepa Dhanraj made her documentary “Something Like A War”, taking a camera inside hospital rooms where doctors nonchalantly boasted about performing hundreds of sterilisations per day – and women, after being given too little anaesthesia, were held down and gagged to prevent them from screaming as the doctors sterilised them.
One thing has certainly changed since then: our schemes for population control now come under the guise of ‘maternal health’, masquerading as women’s ‘choice’ to reproductive health. The scheme in question here is the Janani Suraksha Yojana. The recipients of these schemes, though, are the poor women – those living below-the- poverty line, in villages and slums, those belonging to minority communities, Dalits, and those who cannot afford private healthcare.
In 2015, a journalist reported the condition of labour rooms in one of the premier government hospitals in Kolkata. Women in labour pain were routinely berated and slapped for making a noise by both doctors and nurses. In essence, the problem with targeting marginialised women for everything (from institutional deliveries to sterilisation and uninformed depo-provera shots) is that India’s attitude to reducing fertility has not changed since the forced sterilisation camps under Sanjay Gandhi. We are still eugenical in that we want to only control the number of children poor people have.
For instance, research shows that increased female autonomy has better health-seeking behaviour among women. Incentivising delayed pregnancy is more effective than sterilisation in bringing down fertility rates. But all of this involves changing patriarchal attitudes towards women and how society (as a whole) views them.
Changing this attitude at home and in institutions is a mammoth task that can’t be documented with numerical goalposts (like maternal deaths are). And until we can effect this change in our policies, women will continue to be treated as guniea pigs.
The author is a journalist in the Video Volunteers editorial team.
The video was made by Video Volunteers Community Correspondents.