Allowing a third child to a couple with two daughters, or with a differently-abled child were among the 8,500 suggestions the Uttar Pradesh Law Commission has received on its proposed Population Control Bill.
To achieve its stated goal of bringing down the total fertility rate (TFR) in the state from 2.8 to 2.1 over the next decade, the state government proposed the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill as part of its Population Policy 2021-30. The draft Bill was uploaded on the law panel’s website on July 9. The Bill proposes limiting government benefits for couples with more than two children, while offering incentives to those who have a maximum of two children. The state government is expected to present the Bill in the monsoon session of the state legislature commencing on August 17, 2021.
The panel has divided the suggestions into 53 categories. Madhu Garg, vice president, UP, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), was quoted in media reports, “Such suggestions must not be accepted. It promotes a mindset that prefers sons over daughters.”
The vice of sex-selective abortions
While opinions have been divided with the Bill receiving both appreciation and criticism, experts have warned about how it will adversely impact women’s agency across communities and classes. Among other things, a spike in sex-selective abortions or female feticide and also infanticide — terms that Adsa Fatima of Sama Resource Group for Women and Health refuses to use given their thrust of violence — are also feared to be among the possible negative consequences. The public suggestion of allowing a third child to a couple with two daughters is predicated on the pre-existing bias against the girl child. The larger Indian value system favors the male child, who is hierarchically positioned to be superior as the heir of the family name and wealth and thus of greater socio-cultural capital. The underlying misogynist thought doesn’t acknowledge the girl child as an independent entity and thus seems to suggest that even two girl children are not equal to a son.
This gender bias will place an undesirable burden on women to give birth to male children, adversely impacting sex ratio. “Women in India have very little control over their fertility. Even in middle-class families women are blamed and stigmatized for not giving birth to a male child. Despite the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition Of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT Act), 2003, we know from experience that sex-selective abortions are widespread owing to societal burden and pressure from the family. Hence, this kind of a coercive policy will only add to that pressure leading to a further skewed sex ratio. As Nitish Kumar (Chief Minister of Bihar) has rightly pointed out, the only way to control population is to facilitate education for girls and greater empowerment of women,” HAQ:Centre for Child Rights co-founder and advisor Enakshi Ganguly told MAKERS India. The states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha and Assam already have some form of the two-child policy in place. A 2005 study on the ‘Law of two-child norm in Panchayats’ found “a rise in unsafe, sex-selective abortions (female feticide), men alienating their wives or divorcing them, and giving up children for adoption with the intent to contest polls” in the five states. “Population stabilization in Tamil Nadu and Kerala are there as examples for the country to see,” adds Ganguly.
“Women in India have very little control over their fertility. Even in middle-class families women are blamed and stigmatized for not giving birth to a male child. Despite the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition Of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT Act), 2003, we know from experience that sex-selective abortions are widespread owing to societal burden and pressure from the family. Hence, this kind of a coercive policy will only add to that pressure leading to a further skewed sex ratio.Enakshi Ganguly
“Any coercive approach to control women’s fertility is a form of demographic control. Such disincentivizing is going to adversely impact marginalized members of the society including women and Dalit communities,” Adsa told MAKERS India. What is required is streamlining of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) services, to make safe abortion accessible to women across the intersections of poverty, caste, class. As Adsa informs, women often themselves don’t want more than one or two children but are at the receiving end owing to the pressure to give birth to a male child, the threat of being ‘deserted’ upon failing to ‘give’ a male heir, lack of self-agency, or instances of sexual assault or rape that often lead to unwanted childbirths.
As per the 2011 Census, the sex ratio of Uttar Pradesh is 912 females as per 1,000 males. “Any coercive policy that fails to acknowledge how women, who are to begin with the primary actors and stakeholders of their reproductive health, do not have the last say in childbirth, will only fuel a skewed sex ratio,” she says. Shabnam Hashmi, social activist and founder of the NGO Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), seconds this as she says, “Female feticide will continue to rise especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan where the girl child is not welcome. In a scenario where people are known to go for three to four children for the sake of a male child, the two-child incentive will see a further spike in the abortions of girl children, and the sex ratio will further decline if this Bill is implemented.”
Ganguly, Adsa and Hashmi are among the 139 signatories to the Memorandum to the President of India via email raising concerns and opposing the Draft UP Population Bill 2021. The signatories include women’s groups and networks, public health experts and concerned individuals. “We unequivocally oppose the proposed Bill, and register our concerns for any such policy-level thinking which are extremely-anti poor, anti-women as they adversely affect both the democratic rights and reproductive choices of women, who are at the receiving end,” reads a part of the Memorandum.
The neglected girl child
According to researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an average of 239,000 girls under five in India die each year, or 2.4 million in a decade, because of their gender. As reported, the researchers analyzing 2000-2005 Census data arrived at what they described as an “excess mortality rate” among girls under five years of age in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh — as high as 30 per 1,000 live births. The ‘Annual Health Survey Bulletin 2011-12’ has highlighted how girls are “disappearing” owing not just to feticide but also to infanticide, amounting to the killing of hundreds of thousands of young girls.
Christophe Guilmoto from the Université Paris-Descartes, France, who has highlighted how the focus can’t alone be on pre-natal sex selection to account for the vanishing girl child, has been quoted in the media, “Gender-based discrimination towards girls doesn’t simply prevent them from being born, it may also precipitate the death of those who are born. Gender equity is not only about rights to education, employment or political representation. It is also about care, vaccination and nutrition of girls, and ultimately survival.”
“Leaving aside a small section of liberal society, women are not the decision makers in large sections of mainstream India. Even in urban India, women’s choices are routinely subjugated especially in joint family structures,” points out Hashmi. Alongside the persistence of patriarchal institutions, there exists the vicious web of poverty, low social development, a lack of investment in girls, and medical and family-led apathy towards the girl child. Reports have highlighted how health workers on the ground have often failed to distinguish between abortions and feticide. Empowerment at the grassroots level demands both critical thinking at the level of policy makers and an acknowledgement of cultural baggage that has traditionally worked against women and girls.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)