Thursday, 8 March 2012

International Women's Day: Empowering women in India through reproductive rights

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

International Women's Day (IWD) is an occasion to review how far women have come in their struggle for equality and development. The condition of women in India has undoubtedly improved in last twenty years. However, the extent of this improvement is mainly confined to the middle classes. Even among the middle class families this change has been very slow and it has benefited only a small proportion of women, mainly in the educated ones and that too in big cities. Women from this class have achieved remarkable success and are piecing the glass ceiling, but they are still the exceptions.  According to the Gender Gap Index Report 2011, released by the World Economic Forum, India is simply not doing enough for its women. The country ranked 113 out of 135 countries in 2011. Further,   India’s ranking has been falling steadily since 2006 when the Index was launched. In 2006, India was ranked 98th. Between 2007 and 2011, the ranking has swayed between 112 and 114. That is a shameful reflection of the condition of the women in a country that is on a growth song. Available data indicate that   the lack of education, poor health conditions and discrimination in opportunities for work and income still haunt women. It appears that India is simply not doing enough for its women to improve access to resources and freedom of movement.  There is an urgent need to rethink as how to expedite the process of women empowerment in a patriarchal and traditional society like India with innumerable obstacles.

One has to recognize that high GDP alone does not automatically empower women nor does it reduce gender inequality. That can happen only from more deliberate public policy interventions. The Report indicates that Indian women have narrowed the gap with men on education, economic and political participation; relative to men, however, “they are slipping further on health”. It is because they have unequal access to basic health resources especially reproductive healthcare services and lack adequate counseling as well as follow-up and management of side effects. The result is an increasing risk of unintended or unwanted, early pregnancies, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.

As per the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), every fifth birth has been classified as unplanned or unintended (that is mistimed or unwanted at the time the women became pregnant).  It is estimated that more than 26 million children are born in India every year and out of this about 6 million births have been classified as unplanned. The level of unwanted fertility can also be measured by comparing the total wanted fertility rate with the total or actual fertility rate. The total wanted fertility rate represents the level of fertility that theoretically would result if all unwanted births were prevented.  Overall, the total wanted fertility rate of 1.9 children/woman is lower by 0.8 child than the total fertility rate of 2.7 for the country as a while, as per the NFHS-3. The proportion of births that were unwanted was the highest for births to women from the Four Large North Indian States of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Utter Pradesh as compared to the southern States. The difference between the total fertility rate and wanted fertility rate ranges from 0.1 children in Kerala followed by Andhra Pradesh (0.3 children) and Tamil Nadu (0.4)  to 1.6 children in Bihar closely followed by  Uttar Pradesh (1.5), Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (1.0 each).

It is estimated that currently there are around 450 million people in India out of 1200 million who are product of unwanted/unplanned pregnancies, and most of them are from the lower economic strata. The consequences of unintended pregnancy are serious, imposing significant burden on women and families, and in turn slowing down the process of women’s empowerment. Unintended pregnancy breeds powerlessness and powerlessness breeds subordination (quality of obedient submissiveness) and subordination breeds unintended pregnancy.  And women find themselves in a vicious circle. In other words, Indian women, in general, do not have control on their body[1].

We have to agree that the poor performing States of India have neglected the reproductive health programme in spite of extra attention given under the National Rural Health Mission. Had these States been meticulous enough to provide client centered reproductive health services and to frame appropriate policies to manage the programme, India could have, by now, improved the status of women and reduced the gender gap significantly, as observed in many developing countries? Therefore, reproductive healthcare is an essential plank in empowering the women.

We need creative policies to strengthen this foundation. It is because women don't leave their gender behind when they enter the workforce, as argued by the Professor Ruth Pearson of University of Leeds. Women's ability to choose the number and timing of their births is the key to empowering women as individuals, mothers and citizens. Through this  women  gain  greater share  of  control  over resources  -  material,  human and intellectual  in  the  home and out side.  As such, it is much desirable to make reproductive healthcare accessible and affordable in expediting the process of women empowerment in the traditional society like India. Until the policy makers take a focused and long term interest in the advancement of women by ensuring reproductive rights backed by quality health care services, it will be rather difficult to expedite the process of women empowerment in existing environment. Also, the educating the girls could be the fast track to progress.  And this feminist agenda will contribute significantly towards women’s empowerment.

Next four posts discuss the population and development scenario in Four Large North Indian States of India. 

[1] For details, see: Kothari Devendra, “Empowering Women in India through Better Reproductive Healthcare”, FPA Working Paper No 5, Jaipur: Forum for Population Action, 2010.