Equality is a fundamental human right and the foundation of a sustainable world. And yet, it is rarely practiced in the contemporary world. Despite a number of policies and laws, inequality on the lines of nation, religion, caste, class, and gender continues to prevail across the globe. Although inequality in any form is dangerous for the development of society, gender inequality in particular cuts across all the layers of social stratification and requires our grave attention.
India being a traditionally patriarchal society, has, over the years, brought several laws to curb age-old gender discrimination and empower women, all thanks to the efforts of great leaders such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Savitribai Phule, and Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Unfortunately, though, the brutal social reality is not in sync with these laws. From being discriminated in terms of access to jobs, remuneration, education and health, women in India have been exploited to an extent where they do not have right over even their own body. From female genital mutilation to abortion rights, the integrity of the female body has been perpetually dependent on external authorities.
According to Amnesty International ‘Whoever you are, wherever you live, all the decisions you make about your own body should be yours’. Reproductive and sexual rights are considered to be an essential pillar for the realisation of human rights. But exactly what do these reproductive rights mean?
When we talk about reproductive rights, it mainly encompasses three main elements. As per the United Nations handbook on ‘Reproductive Rights are Human Rights’: the first, that individuals should have right to decide about the number, spacing and timing of children and in order to do so they have rights to have all the necessary information and means; the second talks about the sexual and reproductive health; the third says that individual must be guaranteed to form their reproductive decision without being subject to any form of discrimination, force or violence.
In simple terms, every individual must have awareness, access and freedom to take control of their sexual and reproductive systems. Any sexual relationship should be devoid of coercion in any form.
Ironically, India has been a torch bearer in guaranteeing women legal rights to access to contraception as well as abortion. But when it comes to implementation, these laws and policies have terribly failed. The extent of failure of these policies and laws is clear with unsafe abortion being the third leading cause of maternal deaths in India. Another such indicator is unmet family planning needs, which is percentage of married women (of reproductive age) who, even though they want to delay or stop childbearing, are not able to do so, owing to lack of contraception. In India, as per the recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), most states show some degree of progress. However, a large percent of women still faces gaps between its reproductive intentions and contraceptive behaviour.
Meghalaya, Mizoram, Bihar, Kerala and Manipur have the largest percent of women with unmet family planning needs. The poor performance of these states maybe attributed partly to the rigid cultural norms of the land or due to the fact that there is lack of awareness. Research shows that educational status of women is one of the primary factors affecting the adoption of contraception. Higher levels of education increase the chances of awareness and the greater independence/control in terms of decisions in these areas. Additionally, financial autonomy also plays a major role as economic independence of women has significant and positive impact on their sexual as well as reproductive autonomy and rights.
However, these are not enough; research also shows that despite good levels of education and financial status, women still face significant challenges in meeting their family planning needs. In states like Kerala, factors such as religious faith, partner’s reluctance and the overall taboo behind the use of contraception makes progress much more difficult. Hence it is important that this issue is looked at from all socio-economic levels.
We must not forget that the right over one’s body is fundamental. Without women getting absolute autonomy over their reproductive cycle, even the most evolved societies cannot claim to have bestowed human rights on their citizens. Governments across the world must make an effort to empower women in the most fundamental way by understand various barriers and work towards removing them as well as the taboos associated with the use of contraception.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.