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A Woman’s Agency: A Casualty of Politics of Birth?

A Woman's Agency: A Casualty of Politics of Birth?
Hoffnung II (“Hope II”), Gustav Klimt, 1907-08

Women in India are exposed to a triple whammy. The politics of birth that is deeply influenced by patriarchal notions puts enormous pressure on women. Apart from being treated as birth machines expected to manufacture babies of the desired sex, they also carry the onus of raising the child and the burden of birth control. These issues lay bare the gendered construct of a woman’s role in a patriarchal society. Is she sociologically anathematised for her biological boon?

The Idea of Birth:

We live in a society where womanhood is used as a synonym for motherhood. A woman’s ability to give birth is used to validate her muliebrity. She is seen as a bearer of the family’s heirs. In a pro-natalist male-dominated society, while female infertility is considered a curse, the wife is also expected to carry the burden of her husband’s infertility. The stigma attached to barrenness subjects her to mental distress, social abandonment and harassment (Roberts et al., 2020).

Further, the son-meta preference imposed on her forces her to get impregnated until she gives birth to the desired number of sons. Economic survey 2017-2018 mentioned that though an average Indian family prefers to have two children, some families had more than five children if the last child was not male, which led to the birth of 21 million unwanted girls between 0 to 25 years. A woman is generally given no say in the choices of birth that are shoved up her vulva, sometimes without consent, sometimes with consent but without the will and sometimes with the consent and will that ensues out of sheer societal pressure. 

A woman is falsely made to believe that her pride and self-worth are linked to her being the mother of a child (read as a male child). The respect attracted by a woman who gives birth to a male child in a family puts undue duress on other women in the family who now take it upon themselves to succumb to the societal compulsion of giving birth to a male child. This psychological burden on women is real and has been perpetuated across generations. Society needs to stop relegating a woman’s choice in the matters of birth to mere background noise.

Pregnancy and Child Care:

Anecdotes of women facing discrimination and harassment in their workplaces due to their pregnancy are not uncommon. Pregnancy is widely seen as an economically unproductive act that reduces the capability of a woman to work. Companies mostly see maternity leave as a liability on their exchequer. This perception plays a larger role in understanding the reducing presence of women in workplaces. Moreover, India’s maternity benefit act ignores a father’s role by not providing adequate provisions for a paid paternity leave. This encourages corporations to discriminate against women of childbearing age. However, though working pregnant women’s rights in the formal sector are protected by a legal instrument, such safeguards are absent for women in the unorganised sector, who constitute nearly 94% of the women in the workforce (Banerjee, 2019). In a neo-liberal-capitalist society that makes decisions on a cost-benefit framework, if the moral argument does not help, the State and the corporates must at least see the economic value contributed by a pregnant woman whose pregnancy is the source of their ultimate human capital!  

Child care is associated with the mother despite the father having an equal role in raising a child. This notion burdens women with additional responsibilities. According to the recent NSS’ Time Use of India’ survey, while women spend 134 minutes a day in caregiving activities to a dependent child or an adult in the household, men spend merely 76 minutes a day. While women’s participation in caregiving activities stood at 27.6%, men’s participation stood at just 14%(NSS Survey, 2020). Moreover, child care is still treated as an unproductive and unpaid service with no economic value attached to it. The long maternity break and the burden of societal pressure imposed on women to fit into the bracket of a ‘perfect mother’ make it difficult for them to rebound in their career. This career break also increases the gender wage gap as men have the leeway to advance in their careers.

Birth Control

Though the cursory glance at the National Family Health Survey-5 data might lead to a fallacious inference that women are active agents in deterring population growth, unfortunately, a more profound insight indicates how they are, in fact, passive recipients of injustice rooted in patriarchy. Female sterilisation, a conclusive procedure, is the most popular family planning method in India. According to the numbers presented in the Parliament, India witnessed nearly 1434 female sterilisation deaths between the years 2003-2012 (Srinivasan, 2016). Though the procedure of male sterilisation is risk-free, the NFHS-5 data shows that only a minuscule percentage of men opt for sterilisation compared to a whooping percentage of women. Even the use of temporary methods like condoms is hugely unpopular among men. The notion of manhood tied to a man’s virility in a patriarchal society, and the gender-biased policy structures are the main reasons behind this stark gender disparity in the usage of family planning methods.

Where are the men?

Men in India seem to be mostly absent from the picture of childbirth. Society needs to understand that reproductive responsibility is not solely a woman’s to bear. Men need to play a proactive role in the realm of birth and child care. Firstly, the advertising industry needs to usher in a paradigm shift in how we conceptualise reproductive responsibility and childcare by being more gender-inclusive. It would be refreshing to see men’s faces in the advertisements related to birth, birth control and child care. The new diapers ad by Pampers recognising a father’s role needs to be appreciated in this regard. 

The policies and the laws of the State must be made gender-neutral. Fathers must be given access to a paid paternity leave. This would reduce the drudgery of women and give them adequate space to continue with their careers. The women workforce in the informal sector currently left in the lurch should be provided access to maternity benefits. It is also high time to emphasise the role of men in family planning. Male-centric temporary and permanent methods of family planning must be popularised. For this, the government should recruit more male health workers in community health care to enable a gender-neutral response to reproductive health (Fotso et al., 2015).

The patriarchal scripts that fix gender roles circumscribe a woman’s agency to construct a life that she has a reason to value. It is pertinent to shatter these gender roles and release her from the trammels of patriarchy. Why should reproductive responsibility and childcare be women’s exclusive domain when the entire country’s population and future rely on it? They must be shared as a collective responsibility, not concentrated and imposed as fixed gender roles.

References

Banerjee, M. (2019, June 7). What Work Choices Are Indian Women Making and Why? The Wire. https://thewire.in/women/indian-women-work-care-informal-sector

Fotso, J. C., Higgins-Steele, A., & Mohanty, S. (2015). Male engagement as a strategy to improve utilization and community-based delivery of maternal, newborn and child health services: Evidence from an intervention in Odisha, India. BMC Health Services Research, 15(1), S5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6963-15-S1-S5

NSS Report Confirms Women Shoulder Unpaid Household Work, Care Giving Duties. (2020, September 30). [Text]. The Wire. https://thewire.in/government/nss-report-women-unpaid-household-work-care-giving-duties

Roberts, L., Renati, S., Solomon, S., & Montgomery, S. (2020). Women and Infertility in a Pronatalist Culture: Mental Health in the Slums of Mumbai. International Journal of Women’s Health, 12, 993–1003. https://doi.org/10.2147/IJWH.S273149

Srinivasan, S. (2016, September 15). Why hundreds of women have died in the government’s horrific sterilisation camps [Text]. Scroll.In; https://scroll.in. http://scroll.in/pulse/816587/why-hundreds-of-women-have-died-in-the-governments-horrific-sterilisation-camps


Meena Yadem

Meena Yadem

Meena is a graduate student at the School of Public Policy and Governance at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. She looks forward to imbibing and imparting deeper insights and a profound understanding of multiple dimensions of public policy. Her long term goal is to contribute the best of her knowledge and ability to build a sustainable and equitable future. Poignant pragmatism is a trait that she has honed over years of toil with little social gratification, confirmation or validation of that hard work. Today, the process and the journey excites her more than the result. By not letting the societal version of success and growth demoralise her, she takes pleasure in defying and redefining conventional connotations affixed to the binaries, failure and success. She wears this bestowed impertinence clubbed with rustic resilience proudly on her sleeve and it is this that makes her a blahck sheep.

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