The news that 15 women recently died in India due to botched sterilization serves as a painful reminder of the country’s history. In the 1970s, India instituted a policy of forced sterilization as a means of national contraception to curb population growth.
This program was funded by loans by the UN Population Fund and the World Bank, in the amount of tens of millions of dollars. In 1975, over six million poor men were sterilized, virtually being dragged from their villages to clinics. Of those, two thousand died. This action was documented in the novel, Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.
Compulsory sterilization is no longer enforced in India. It is still in practice, however, and the focus is now on women. Last weekend a surgeon sterilized a record number of women within a short period of time: 80 in six hours. This amounts to four minutes per surgery. The result is that 15 women died in the state of Chhattisgarh and dozens more are hospitalized.
The place where the women were sterilized is called a “sterilization camp”. This is where many poor women are taken. District health workers sterilize them by surgically tying their fallopian tubes.
Incentives are in place for women who already have two or three children. They are given a token payment, such as cash (under $25) or household goods, such as pots and pans. The payment has replaced compulsory practice, with a similar result of slowing population growth.
In India, sterilization is the most prevalent means of birth control for married people with as many as 37 percent of married women having participated. This method is a quick means of family planning, replacing counseling or birth control pills.
Accompanying this practice in India is the presence of headhunters, called “finders,” who also receive a miniscule fee for bringing women to the clinic. The question which many are asking regards the extent of coercion that led these women to get sterilized.
Last year and this, close to four million Indians were sterilized. Most of these were women. Between 2009 and 2012 there were more than 700 deaths were reported. Nearly 400 cases of complications arose from botched procedures, as well.
The silent response of the Indian government to the news of the sterilization deaths is a painful reminder of the past. Some information was recently leaked that women in at least one other state-run sterilization camp in the country may have gotten infected during the same time as the deaths occurred. The apparent coincidence has raised questions as to high state-mandated quotas.
At present, council women provide condoms and birth control pills to village women as an option beyond sterilization. The United Nations and the Population Council are advocating that choices be broadened further, with implants and injectable birth control. In addition, they say that quality control needs to be instituted for the practice of sterilization.
What is being called into question is the history of state-sponsored population control that targets the underprivileged and the poor. The action has been referred to as “eugenics” –systematic actions that purportedly “improve” the genetic quality of a population – selective breeding. Comparisons have been made to the Nazi practice of forced sterilization.
The recent sterilization deaths bring a painful reminder of India’s past. Many both inside and outside the country are questioning how distant that past truly is.
By Fern Remedi-Brown