Respecting the Rights of Women

I saw this story on the front page of Google News this morning:

Sterilization Drive Leaves 8 Indian Women Dead

A total of 83 women, all poor villagers under the age of 32, had the operations Saturday in a hospital outside Bilaspur city in the central state of Chhattisgarh. All 83 surgeries were conducted within six hours, said the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. S.K. Mandal.

Each of the women had received a payment of 600 rupees, or about $10, to participate in the program, Mandal said.

The women were sent home Saturday evening after their surgeries, but more than two dozen were later rushed in ambulances to private hospitals after becoming ill. By Tuesday, eight had died — apparently from either blood poisoning or hemorrhagic shock, which occurs when a person has lost too much blood…

India’s government — long concerned about rapid growth in a country whose population has reached 1.3 billion — offers free sterilizations to both women and men who want to avoid the risk and cost of having a baby, though the vast majority of patients are women.

In many cases, they are offered a one-time payment for undergoing surgery of $10-$20, or about a week’s pay for a poor person in India. Hundreds of millions of Indians live in poverty.

India has one of the world’s highest rates of sterilization among women, with about 37 percent undergoing such operations compared to 29 percent in China, according to 2006 statistics reported by the United Nations. During 2011-12, the government said 4.6 million Indian women were sterilized.

(full article)

This is disturbing on many levels, firstly because of the injury and loss of life. But the larger picture here should disturb you greatly. This is a government-run program that pays people to be sterilized. And the majority of those being sterilized are women. This is such a grand show of misogyny, I’m waiting for American feminists to start calling for an end to this horrendous practice. After all, this way of thinking isn’t unheard of in our own country. Former vice president of Planned Parenthood Frederick Jaffe wrote a memo to the head of the Population Council in 1969 summarizing some ideas to help combat overpopulation. The document is available here. The final page contains a table with ideas culled from different sources with ideas like “Reduce/eliminate paid maternity leave or benefits”, “Require women to work and provide few child care facilities”, “Limit/eliminate public-financed medical care, scholarships, housing, loans and subsidies to families with more than N children”, and “Compulsory sterilization of all who have two children except for a few who would be allowed three.” The entire table is worth reading. It’s so unbelievably misogynistic and anti-choice, it’s hard to believe it’s real.

Yet today in India, women are being paid to be sterilized. Why is the discrimination and abuse of women the answer to the problem of overpopulation? How can we be okay with the government telling women what to do with their bodies? Instead, why aren’t women being empowered with knowledge about their bodies and their fertility? Instead, why aren’t they being educated so they can make their own decisions about what to do with that knowledge? Instead, why aren’t they given opportunities to start and grow businesses so they can rise above poverty? These aren’t solutions that can take place within the span of six hours, like paid sterilization. Apparently, the government of India doesn’t believe enough in the dignity of each human person to invest in solutions that take time, that will have a lasting impact and that respect the rights and dignity of women. The question is, do you? Does the Jaffe Memo sound right to you? Does it sound like something that respects women and men, and empowers them to make their own choices?

A government is not put in place to make decisions for people, decisions like how adults should plan their families or educate their children. A government’s place is to provide conditions for people to thrive as they exercise their judgment and make the best decisions they can for their health and families. If a woman decides that working only part-time after the birth of her child is the best thing for her family, her dignity as a human being demands that she have access to working conditions that facilitate this decision as much as possible. And no politician should be dictating what choice is the right one for her. I have a hard time believing it would ever be acceptable for a government to pay women to have their functioning reproductive systems disrupted because the government believes it’s the best thing for them.

I hear this line of reasoning far too often in my own country.  You have Bill and Melinda Gates, who believe shipping contraceptives off to Africa will help the poor. The Gates Foundation website states that “…more than 220 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant lack access to contraceptives…” as if pills and condoms will fix their problems – and are the only way to fix their problems. What about this Nigerian woman’s suggestions? She says what Africans really need are things like better healthcare, better education, and the prevention of domestic abuse and sex trafficking.

We need to speak up for the rights of women, especially in these impoverished countries. We need to speak up for their right to education and autonomy, to make sure they can support themselves and their families. Instead of giving them a week’s pay to be sterilized, as if they were no more than stray pets, let’s respect their inherent human dignity.

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