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Safeguarding Women’s Interests on World Population Day

The article is authored by Sanjeeta Gawri works with IPE Global and leads a CSR-supported nutrition project in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

This year’s World Population Day (WPD) theme puts safeguarding women’s and girls’ interests at the center. Nearly one-half of the world’s population is women, yet, they are marginalised. What matters to them is very much rooted in the conversation around WPD. Women’s rights, especially reproductive health rights, choices, agency, and decision-making abilities, revolve around policies determining the number of children they can have.

As India surpasses China to become the world’s most populous country, the concerns around population explosion spark heated debate to enforce strict population control measures. Several elected politicians and leaders propose implementing the Two Child Norm Policy during parliamentary and legislative assembly discussions, restricting people from availing of government subsidies and benefits if they have more than two children. In the Upper house of the Parliament, a nominated Member of Parliament (MP) introduced a private member bill to disqualify people from being chosen as MPs and members of legislative assemblies. Likewise, several other state governments have barred people’s right to contest local elections at the provincial or district levels in light of the proposed two-child norms policy.

However, these strict policy measures to control the country’s population are shortsighted. First, India’s population growth has stabilised, and the average number of children born per woman has decreased from 5.9 in 1950 to 2.1 in 2021. In other words, the intended replacement level of 2.1 has already been reached, implying one generation produces just enough children to replace itself. With the slower population growth rate that India is progressing into, there is less need to implement severe and forceful population control measures such as the two-child norm.

Second, the poor and the marginalised face the brunt of such strict measures. Although fertility declined across all social, economic, and caste groups, it remains uneven. Being socially and economically disadvantaged, the poor and the minority communities, such as the Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims, tend to have more children. They are often blamed for having large family sizes. Furthermore, they face social exclusion based on caste, identity, geography, and religion. The unmet need for family planning services in India stands low at 9.4 %; due to several reasons, such as–the unavailability and unaffordability of contraceptives, limited agency for women to utilise them, and insufficient attention given to addressing potential side effects. According to National Family Health Survey, 2019-21, 50% of women from lower socioeconomic groups use contraceptives, which increases to 58% among women from higher social quintiles. Conversely, people from lower social wealth quintiles have high unmet needs for family planning (11.4 %), while those among higher socioeconomic groups are the lowest (8.6 percent). Individuals who are less educated, economically disadvantaged, employed in the informal sector, and have limited financial resources often belong to lower social wealth quintiles. This demographic frequently includes Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims. Thirdly, studies showed that the two-child norms policy led to the disproportional disqualification of women belonging to Dalits, Adivasi, and other backward castes in panchayat elections. This will be counterproductive to the 73rd constitutional amendment aimed to increase women’s political participation by reserving 33% of seats in local governance in 1993.

Fourth, women face both social and gender exclusion. Their limited agency to make decisions about sexual and reproductive health will further amplify their vulnerability. Till today, the burden of birth control remains on women, and contraceptive use among men is low; condom use among men stands at nine % while male sterilization is 0.2%, according to NFHS data, 2019-21. Unfortunately, female sterilisation is the most popular family planning method, and it takes place in camps in unhygienic and poor conditions, sometimes costing women their lives.

Robbing off the choice to have children further disenfranchises them. It adds stigma and alienates them from development. Although officially, the family planning program is voluntary, several instances and news reports reveal that women face discrimination for availing reproductive health and nutrition services, schemes, and entitlements if they don’t fit into the desired family size of two or opt for a permanent method of family planning. They fear reporting their third pregnancy, often giving birth at home, without registration and access to antenatal services, and risking their health and nutrition. It also takes away the health care and nutrition rights of the newborn.

In Indian society, where a strong preference for having a male child persists, implementing the two-child norm significantly undermines women’s reproductive health and rights. Women are deserted if they fail to produce a male heir, and children are neglected if they are girls. Studies have highlighted that this increased discrimination towards a girl child coupled with a deep-rooted preference for the male child has encouraged sex-selective, and unsafe abortions, further worsening the sex ratio.

The imposition of the two-child norm in India undermines women’s fundamental rights and interests, neglecting the significant harm it causes. Instead, the focus should be on empowering women as the central agents of development. As the saying goes, development is the best contraceptive. Promoting women’s literacy, improving their employability, ensuring access to contraceptives, and offering affordable reproductive health services, there will be a natural decline in fertility rates. Women should hold complete autonomy and agency in deciding when and how many children to have, emphasising their freedom to make reproductive choices that best suit their aspirations and circumstances.

The article is authored by Sanjeeta Gawri works with IPE Global and leads a CSR-supported nutrition project in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

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