Family Planning Is Her Problem

In our gender-biased population control efforts, the baby is always the woman’s predicament.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Anindita Sengupta

March 24, 2013

Also published at Bangalore Mirror

The other day, I was in the queue at a ticket counter of a suburban station in Mumbai. Behind me, two men nattered on about whether they should take a train or a cab. They were middle aged, middle class, nothing unremarkable, though a bit loud. As we reached the counter, a woman sitting on the ground near it, with a baby in her arms, asked for money. One of the men gave her some coins. The baby got hungry. She put the baby’s head under her saree. It was at this opportune moment that one of the men chose to ask her a couple of friendly questions. “Kaam kyon nahi karti?” he said. (Why don’t you work?) “Kaam nahi karti aur bachche paida karti hain.” (Doesn’t work but produces children.).

Some states in India use incentives to promote sterilisation, which almost always means female sterilisation.

The woman looked up, a little bewildered, possibly too dizzy with hunger, possibly too accustomed to such heckling to react. The men laughed. It was a brief and stunning moment of violence. Two men picking on a woman in the middle of an act that in upper class households would be considered precious, sacred and a signifier of value.

This is not uncommon, vulgar as it may be, this tendency of the middle class to bully the less fortunate. Perhaps, it is guilt that makes some cringe and lash out, some sense of culpability because, of course it is not an accident that a woman sits at a railway counter with her baby. Whatever the case may be, the crass tone was permissible in a public place because it was a poor woman (and of course, the middle class believes that they can speak to the poor in whatever way they like) but also, because it fell within the neat concern of family planning. “We have such a big population — all because of people like this,” said the man, turning back to his companion who nodded.

Never mind the fact that the woman who had been “told off” may not have had too many choices in the matter of whether or not to have this baby. It is commonly known that poor women often do not make the decisions about contraception in their households. Yet, they are the ones who will have to carry the baby around with them, nurse the baby, take care of the baby, and bear the callous and throw-away admonitions of the middle class. A middle class man is less likely to taunt a poor man in this manner.

The gendered nature of issue occurs at far deeper levels. According to an English translation of a Saheli chapter on Women’s Reproductive Rights in Narivadi Rajneeti: Sangharsh Evam Mudde (Feminist Politics: Struggles and Issues), “Indian women, especially from the poorer sections, have been subjected to a population reduction programme garbed in euphemisms ranging from ‘family planning’, to ‘family welfare’ and now to ‘reproductive health’. Changing the terminology of the population control programme from “Family Planning” in the early 1950s to the present term “Reproductive and Child Health” has not changed the framework within which women’s health is viewed. Today’s family welfare programme is still replete with incentives and disincentives, and punitive measures like barring people with more than 2 children from contesting elections.”

State authorities in some parts of India also use incentives — including cars, gold coins, and drawings for prizes — to “promote” sterilisation, says a 2012 release from Human Rights Watch. Because male sterilisation is not well-accepted socially, this almost always means female sterilization.

In this view of population control, the baby is always the woman’s problem. Whether she has it or doesn’t, the responsibility is hers and hers alone. In the meantime, we give men full impunity to have sex with their wives as and when they want, as often, and without contraceptives. Even now, after all the rumpus about rape and anti-rape laws, we do not recognise marital rape as a crime. How can a husband violate a woman whom he “owns”? The fact that this attitude and the sanctioning of it by the highest authorities in our country do not arouse the collective anger of the middle class is worrying.

Or perhaps, that anger is too easy to deflect and channelise into ranting about traffic problems? In the meantime, we are full of wise words for the woman sitting under a railway ticket counter, begging for coins, trying to feed her baby.

Anindita Sengupta reports on maternal and reproductive health in India as a 2013 New Media Fellow with the International Reporting Project in Washington, DC.