Article by Madhura Charkraborty, Video by VV Community Correspondents
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 been on the shoulders of women. In 2013-14, 4 million sterilisations were performed across the country, of which only 100,000 were performed on men. It is important to remember that India spends 85% of its total family planning budget on sterilisation. In 2014, 15 women in Chhattisgarh died due to botched sterilisation in government camps.
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 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, 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 Janani Suraksha Yojana. The recipients of these schemes, though, remain the poor women, those living below poverty line, in villages and slums, belonging to minority communities, Dalits – those who cannot afford private healthcare.
In 2015, a journalist reported the condition of labour room in one of the premier government teaching hospitals in Kolkata, a metropolis. Women in labour pain were berated and slapped for making noise, routinely by both doctors and nurses. The problem, in essence, in targeting marginalised 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 the poor have.
Research shows increased female autonomy, for instance, 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 goal posts like maternal deaths can. And until we can effect this change in our policy language, women will continue to be treated as guinea pigs.