The Sterilization War In India That Never Stops

Screenshot from YouTube Video

This post is a compilation of three articles written by Madhura Charkraborty and Alankrita Anand which originally appeared on Video Volunteers, an award-winning international community media organization based in India.

India has a dark history of state-sponsored population control targeting the poor and underprivileged. Since 1975, the year of “The Emergency” when 6.2 million men were forcibly sterilized in a widely criticised move, the burden of reducing fertility has squarely been on the shoulders of women. Video Volunteer community correspondents report on the growing cases of sterilization of poor women in government health centers without consent.

In 2013-14, 4 million sterilizations were performed across India, 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 sterilization. In 2014, 15 women in the state of Chhattisgarh died due to botched sterilization in government camps.

The information above paints quite an overall picture of how the Indian government views and treats women. Over 20 years since the Beijing platform for action hosted by UN Women, which saw a paradigmatic shift from “population control” to a discourse centered 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 sterilizations per day and women, given little anesthesia, were held down and gagged to prevent them from screaming as the doctors sterilised them.

However, one thing has certainly changed since then — the schemes for population control now come under the guise of ‘maternal health’ which masquerades as women’s ‘choice’ in reproductive health as a part of the Janani Suraksha Yojana. The recipients of these schemes are still poor women living below the poverty line in villages and slums, many of whom belong to minority communities like the Dalits and those who cannot afford private healthcare.

Video Volunteers community correspondent Usha Patel reports:

In the above video, it is discussed that a negligible 0.3% men undergo sterilization whereas 36% women undergo the procedure. The reasons? Nandu, a 35-year-old, from Uttar Pradesh, believes that men should not undergo sterilization because they perform “hard” tasks whereas women perform “normal” tasks. His wife, Manju, seconds this.

This video shows the appalling condition of Indian maternal healthcare where 5 women die in childbirth every hour.

In 2015, a journalist reported on the condition of a labor room in one of the premier government teaching hospitals in Kolkata, a metropolis. Women in labor pain were routinely berated and slapped for making noise by both doctors and nurses. The problem in targeting marginalized women for everything from institutional deliveries to sterilization and uninformed Depo-Provera birth control shots is that many similarities can be drawn between India’s attitude to reducing fertility and the past forced sterilization camps under Sanjay Gandhi. Many feel that Indian policies expose a tendency to only control the number of children the poor have.

And there are instances of shocking violation of women’s reproductive rights. In India, the use of male contraception has continued to decline drastically over the past decade, with condom usage falling by 52 percent. And yet, women-centric contraception continues to be pushed by the government in policies like the National Health Mission and on the ground.

Video Volunteers community correspondent Bikash Barman reports that most pregnant women in the Kalpani village of North Bengal’s Cooch Behar district avoid going to the hospital, fearing forcible insertion of intrauterine devices.

In the video, one of the 30 women who delivered in the local government health facility and was forcibly implanted with intrauterine contraceptive devices said:

No, I was not willing to have a copper-T inserted.

Research shows increased female autonomy, for instance, has better health-seeking behavior among women. Incentivising delayed pregnancy is more effective than sterilization 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 like guinea pigs.

Video Volunteers’ community correspondents come from marginalized communities in India and produce videos on unreported stories. These stories are “news by those who live it.” They offer a hyperlocal context to coverage of global human rights and development challenges.

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