History vs. Reality: The State of SRHR in India

Shannon Mathew

I read somewhere (and I paraphrase) that unlike their counterparts in other nations, Indian women did not have to struggle for the right to reproductive rights. My immediate response was one of extreme skepticism. But upon extensive reading and researching, I was surprised to find that there was some truth to this statement. We are all well aware of the stigma that comes attached with topics of sex education, use of contraceptives and abortion, to name a few. But what most of us don’t know is that India’s history with sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) began roughly 60 years ago, and was way ahead of its time.

When we think of ‘Planned Parenthood’, our immediate response would be to link it to the USA. Perhaps secondarily, we may remember them due to the new US administration’s plan to cut their funding. What does not come to mind as a second, third or even fourth thought, is India. But here’s the thing – it was at a conference in Bombay in 1952 that the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), of which the aforementioned Planned Parenthood is a founding member, was launched. That’s right, the birth of the worldwide movement that provides reproductive health and family planning services (currently active in over 170 countries), was in India. In fact, the oldest IPPF clinic in the world is in Bombay, and functions to this very day.

India is called the “land of-“ many things, but we can agree that the ‘land of contrasts’ is perhaps the most apt. India is simultaneously traditional and modernized, conservative and progressive. And yet these two diametrically opposite worlds had to meet in order to address two large challenges the country faced: population stabilization and improving human development indicators. To address these issues in a way that has actual on-ground impact, it was important to enact a practical system of policies that did not undermine the traditional cultural foundation of our society but upheld it.

In the 1930’s, India pioneered family planning in Asia by introducing one of the first birth control clinics. This movement to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity was led by two dynamic women Avabai Wadia and Dhanvanthi Rama Rau. The duo met while in the All India Women’s Conference and went on to found the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI).

FPAI worked closely with the Government of India in helping shape policies and reforms, where they jointly advocated strengthening safe abortion services and expanding contraceptive choices. In fact, the FPAI was instrumental in getting family planning included in the first 5 year Plan in 1951. This made India the first country in the world to adopt family planning.

In 1952, backed and funded by the Indian government, FPAI organized the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood in Bombay and gave the opportunity to eight international associations working in the field (including Planned Parenthood USA) to come together. Renowned women's rights activists from all over the world attended the conference, including Margaret Sanger and Elise Ottesen-Jensen. It was here that the delegates unanimously voted for the formation of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which came into existence shortly thereafter.

FPAI has been at the forefront of promoting SRHR in India, having reached out to millions, both women and men. In the 1970’s, FPAI drew women out of the confines of their homes and gave them the opportunity to get involved in Mahila Mandals or women’s collectives. These co-operatives empowered women by encouraging them to take part in literacy and income generation programmes, where they worked as peer educators on family planning methods, keeping stocks of contraceptives ready for easy access.

An important mission of FPAI is to equip young people with information about their bodies, sexuality, responsible sexual behavior, marriage, parenthood, contraception, and prevention of STDs. Sex Education, Counselling, Research and Training (SECRT) Centres provided easy access to this information in a friendly, judgement free environment.

The more I read about the FPAI, the more it felt like an alternative history written by an idealist dreaming of what India could have been. But it is very much a part of our history; and yet, with respect to women’s reproductive rights, our country’s trajectory seems to have taken us in a very different direction.

Women’s groups, however, continue to fight the good fight, and insist that women’s reproductive rights account for only one aspect of the control a woman can exercise on her own life. They are themselves mired in the  complex realities of a society where political, economic, cultural and social factors come together to influence a women’s bodily autonomy.

In a situation where women often do not have access to clean drinking water and basic facilities (health care and education); where society decides how women will live, where they live (and sometimes even how they die), who they will marry, and whether they will study, it is apparent that the struggle for Indian women’s reproductive rights needs to go further than reproductive freedom, and enter the arena of social, economic and political rights.

But this fight has to be fought on two fronts simultaneously – even while campaigning for their right over their bodies, women’s groups argue severely against population control. Is that a contradiction in terms? It is crucial to understand, as Saheli aptly puts it, that “birth control is an individual woman’s right to control her fertility, and at most, a couple’s attempt to determine family size, while ‘family planning’ or ‘population control’ is the government/states’ attempt to limit the numbers of its citizens.”

A case in point is the 1971 decision by the Indian government to reconsider the abortion laws in the IPC. This was not rooted in the belief that women are the final (if not sole) decision makers when it comes to their own body, but in the idea that abortion could be used as a method to control the country’s exploding population.

While there are so many reasons to celebrate the foundation on which family planning in India stands, there are an equal number of factors that should remind us that only half the battle is won. This is but one aspect of a larger movement. We have still to continue Avabai Wadia and Dhanwanti Rama Rau’s efforts, until each and every one of us say that exercising control over our own bodies is a right, and not a luxury. 

Shannon Mathew studied History at the University of Delhi, completing her Bachelors in 2016. Currently, she is interning with The YP Foundation.