Population of India: Women’s Empowerment is the Best Contraceptive
Is Population a Problem?
Yes; if your thinking is shaped by the enlightened philosophy of English cleric Mr Thomas Robert Malthus prophesied 2 centuries ago. If you see people merely as food eating morons their increasing number is clearly a burden. In his 1798 piece Essay on the Principle of Population Malthus observed, “…in nature plants and animals produce far more offspring than can survive, and that Man too is capable of overproducing if left unchecked. Malthus concluded that unless family size was regulated, man's misery of famine would become globally epidemic and eventually consume Man.”
Whenever philosophers and scientists extrapolate observations from "plants or animals" to the human world deficiencies are in-built into the logic. Because humans are far too superior compared with plants or animals in every aspect -- whether we like it or not!
If Malthus' ideas survived and found prominence, a large part of the credit goes to the elite class of Western societies which found a rationale for their supposed supremacy over ordinary and poor people. Most of the class and race bias in the Western world most definitely originated from his philosophical ideas.
Malthus was concerned about the decline of living conditions in the 19th century England and argued that growing population is a burden on nature’s resources. He also noted that the lower classes were bearing more children; therefore, he suggested that poor families should only produce as many children as they can support. Why he did not think of helping poor become rich is not known; probably he had no interest in uplifting the poor despite being a cleric.
Given his observations and the socioeconomic conditions at that time, his conclusions were certainly logical. What is wrong is to apply them in today’s world by ignoring the premises on which he said what he said. In fact, Malthus's ill founded ideas shaped much of the aid politics during the mid 20th century.
China’s One Child Policy
Yet the most faithful disciple of Malthus and his philosophy turned out to be the Communist China, whose One Child Policy is often touted as a brilliant example of Malthus’ ideology in action and how any country should check its burgeoning population quickly. In fact, Chinese turned out to be more enthusiastic than Malthus – they implemented their One Child policy across board to all families, not just in the poor class as Malthus initially suggested!
However, what is left unsaid is the havoc the One Child policy caused in the basic structure of the Chinese society and the long term social problems it created for China and its neighbors. Rather than a discourse here, a link to The Dark Side of China’s One Child Policy should suffice. In direct contrast to the State control of people’s reproductive behavior there is a bright example of Kerala here in India. In fact, Kerala has demonstrated how people development can give more humane and more sustainable population control without denying basic reproductive rights to the people. Kerala’s model has been highly applauded and both India and China have a lot to learn from Kerala.
"Women do two-thirds of all the work in the world. They produce over 50 % of the food, but earn less than 1 % of the income and own less than 10 % of the property. It will be an enormous challenge to overcome this depth of inequality."
- Joanna Maycock, President, CONCORD, An European NGO
Need to Learn from the ICPD, Cairo 1994
In the current world order, not Mr Malthus, but the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) of 1994 held in Cairo and its Program of Action (PoA) should guide the policies of population dynamics. The Conference marked a watershed in the understanding of population and development issues. What appears to be “population problem” is nothing but an indication and a symptom of lack of “people development.” It is in direct opposition to the scare mongering of “population explosion” type rhetoric and endorses the idea of rights based approaches in health through the adoption of the concept of “reproductive rights.” The ICPD Program of Action also highlighted the need for male responsibility along with the empowerment of women and mentioned sexual health.
As the Conference highlighted and further corroborated by many studies, women empowerment has a direct bearing on their reproductive behavior and a controlling effect on fertility. A woman’s ability to control her reproductive activities and fertility are very much affected by her status, self-image, and the sense of empowerment. The more empowered she feels, the greater is the freedom and options available to her in terms of education, time of marriage, contraceptives she would like to use, when to bear children, and how to participate in social and work related activities.
I am not sure why Mr Malthus could not think of empowering women at that time. Probably gender equality and its positive consequences were unknown to the primitive English society he lived in.
Best Investment – Girls’ Education
In a recent study of 65 countries including India, the World Bank also concluded that for development there is no investment more effective than educating girls. This one action alone solves several problems in one go; for instance,
- Reduction in Women’s Fertility Rate: Educated women are more likely to use family planning methods, delay marriage and child-bearing compared with women with no or little education. There are studies to suggest that one year of female schooling, particularly secondary school, reduce fertility by 10 percent.
- Reduction in Infant and Child Mortality Rates: Educated women are more aware of healthcare, children’s immunization and their nutritional requirement, and adopt improved sanitation practices. Hence, their kids have higher survival rates and tend to be better nourished and healthier.
- Reduced Maternal Mortality Rate: Due to their better knowledge, educated women are better equipped to avoid unwanted pregnancies and have better planned and well spaced pregnancies and take care of pre- and post-natal issues. It has been estimated that an additional year in school for 1000 women prevents two maternal deaths.
- Protection against HIV/AIDS Infections: Girls’ education is a powerful tool for reducing their vulnerability. Education provides access to information that enables them to stay protected.
- Education Enables Women to earn More: Education opens the door for jobs, income, and opportunities. They become a contributing part of the society.
- Educated Mother Means Educated Kids: Education of mothers is a significant variable affecting children’s educational opportunities. Thus, an educated mother pulls her children from the quagmire of ignorance and poverty.
The problem with the rigid patriarchal society like India is that women have been traditionally confined to home and their role has been limited to mere breeding and shouldering responsibility of all domestic work. Even now in many pockets of rural society the world beyond home boundary is an alien land for them. Male dominance is the sole reason for domestic violence in Indian society. Women get least priority in everything in the families, including education. So, they remain trapped in the self sustaining cycle of exploitation and misery. Therefore, it is also vital to work with men and bring change in their patriarchal mindset.
Involving Men for Women Empowerment
Involving men in the process of gender equality and women empowerment is equally important because that will automatically serve the purpose of population stabilization. When men change, the societal perception and definition of female gender will also change – that in turn will be good for women’s own sense of self worth.
Fortunately such an effort has emerged during last ten years, in the form of a network called Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW). While typically groups working on women empowerment focus on women – that is quite logical – but MASVAW approaches it from the other side, men. Yes, it puts men in the center to change their gender definition and redefines masculinity to include the concept of “share and care.” The changed men then become role models for other men to emulate. Being focused on “men” MASVAW also provides a supportive platform where men can discuss their intimate issues freely and help each other to concretize the change in them.
“MASVAW initiative was first of its kind in Asia which helped propagate such movements in many other countries. It also played an important role when the “Men Engage Global Alliance” was set up in 2004 at the international level.” – Satish Kumar Singh, MASVAW Convener
If all subtle or gross forms of violence against women (VAW) are eliminated, an important mile stone is already achieved on the way to women empowerment. A violence-free environment offers them “normal” atmosphere to grow, discover self-worth, and participate in all types of decision making in the family including reproductive activities and fertility.
Perhaps the happiest individuals from MASVAW's work are the wives of MASVAW activists!! For instance, sample this:
“Now (after joining MASVAW) my husband does not beat me. In fact, now he even counsels me why I should not beat kids. He also encourages me to go out and work. I like the fact that he trusts and respects me.” – Wife of a MASVAW activist
Men are certainly part of the problem; they must share their responsibility in solving it too!
Consequences of Population Growth
- Population Issues - Empowering Women
Discussion on women and population issues in the light of declarations in various international summits.
- Guidelines on Women's Empowerment
UN guidelines for implementation of ICPD Program of Action.
A reputed NGO in Uttar Pradesh working for women empowerment since 1992. It is also responsible for the birth of MASVAW.
- MASVAW(Men's Action for Stopping Violence Against Women)
MASVAW's work is highlighted on his blog.
Population Growth and Women Empowerment
It is amply clear to population experts at least, that the current population growth is momentum driven – too many young people in the reproductive age group – and not because family sizes are increasing. The remedies to check the population momentum are societal – Not clinical. It can be checked by two simple steps: delay the woman’s age at first birth (by discouraging early or child marriages and delaying first pregnancy) and then spacing further births. Child marriages – and hence early pregnancies – are the biggest source of population rise in India. According to UNICEF, 15 percent of girls in rural areas across the country are married before they are even 13; and 52 percent of girls have their first pregnancy between 15 and 19. So, the most effective way to solve the population problem is to kill the population momentum by preventing early pregnancies.
Women empowerment is the ideal way to kill the momentum of population growth. When women have control on their bodies and reproductive health and have the freedom to make decisions and choices a lot of imposed or unwanted pregnancies will be automatically eliminated.
Indian government will do well to heed the experts and don’t just allocate funds for clinical sterilization of women that have been traditionally target driven. The whole focus is loaded against women as if they are solely responsible for pregnancies and child births – and men have no responsibilities. Sensitizing men through a network such as MASVAW for the ultimate goal of women empowerment will automatically put the population issue in perspective.
So, the bottom line is: There is no other contraceptive as effective as women empowerment in the long run; and population is just one of the symptoms of lack of women empowerment, along with poverty. That’s all!
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