After having a long discussion on the different types of contraceptive measures and advantages of having a small family, Sita* didn’t look satisfied. She turned to me and said, “Everything is on us. From taking care of the house, growing children inside us, raising them and now making sure we don’t have children. Why is there no contraception for men except condoms? Why are we the only ones asked to alter our hormones/harm our bodies everyday?”
Reema*, a mother of two, has been taking contraceptive pills since quite some time. She told us how she has to secretly take them behind her husband’s back because he reacts aggressively every time she tries to have a conversation about contraceptives with him. Jaya* was pregnant with her fifth child. She was aware of the financial conditions at home, and wasn’t in the state to take on the responsibility of another baby. Her husband was of the mindset that the more the children, the better. She decided to go for abortion without her husband’s knowledge to avoid being physically abused while watching her children receive a meal just once a day.
Rural areas of south Rajasthan are witness to such complicated situations. Initiatives led by the team of Basic Healthcare Services work around them everyday. The primary focus in these situations is the well-being of the woman and the community as a whole. We ensure that the woman is in a safe space, where she can communicate with us.
At a two-day campaign, we were a part of several conversations with women. To have a level of confidentiality, we maintain the discussion circles of only women. They notice how my dressing is a little different and I have trouble understanding their language. That doesn’t stop them from wanting to open up to me. In such situations, the power of a smile is contagious. You may not always meet people who speak the same language as you, but you definitely have the ability to communicate through your eyes and your body. I sat with them and we discussed, “How many children would you like to have?”. There were middle aged women, older ones, and those who have just been married.
I noticed that the younger the women, the less they spoke. Most of the older ones said, “We think that a small family is good. We want a better future for our children, and don’t want our next generation to repeat our mistakes.”
Women hesitate to speak about contraception even around other women, which is why we wait for a while in case someone would like to approach us privately or share phone numbers to be contacted later on. They do take the onus of using contraception. Many don’t share the reason and we don’t insist on knowing unless we sense that there is danger to someone’s health. Some of them, with their low voice, ask me why are men not as involved as them in the process of family planning and contraception. I don’t really have an answer.
We conduct monthly meetings and campaigns where we discuss family planning and contraception both with women and men. These discussions not only normalize speaking about these topics with each other but also promote a sense of equality. To ensure that men and women have a space to speak their mind, male health workers speak to the men separately. However, when we spoke to them together, a man who had the experience of working outside the village shared, “I think that a family of two or three is sufficient. After working in the city, I have seen the world function differently. I want to educate my children. Education is important.” It is great to see that the experience in contrasting spaces has given direction to people in villages.
Male meetings are held by our male Health workers where they discuss the role of a man in the house, how it isn’t confined to just earning money, how family planning is a shared responsibility and how both man and woman are accountable towards the overall upbringing of children. In most of our conversations, the community responds with an understanding of how a small family is actually beneficial as compared to having several children. The conflicting thought that we often encounter is – The more the children, the more hands to help in the fields. On asking Ramila*, she quite earnestly shared, “We must have 4-5 children, then at least two of them will survive.“
When we go around, meeting people at their doorsteps, speaking to them, listening to them, we learn that they are just trying to survive. Everyone wants food on their table and a roof over their head and they are trying their best to find a way that leads to this. It is a constant effort. We aim to discuss the benefits of nurturing two children with the right amount of food and attention in the family. But behaviour change is one of the slowest social progresses. Every society evolves with time, we are just trying to be catalysts, leading it towards a direction we think has the potential to strengthen the well-being of the community.
Contraception, for now, is predominantly a woman’s responsibility. This isn’t said out loud but I don’t think there is any debate against this statement either. The Indian society has a power dynamic where authority is placed with respect to the age, gender and ownership of resources in a family. It is a favourable patriarchal system and also an enabler to the belief that men and women are not equal. This causes a massive communication gap on several important topics, one of them being family planning and contraceptives.
There is stigma around discussing the most consistent development in the human body. As someone who has freshly graduated in India, I am a little upset with how the adults in positions of power give little or no importance to sex education, and when they do, the timing doesn’t seem right. Neither does the frequency nor the level of understanding and normalcy are maintained. It doesn’t seem all fair calling out the education system, as adults and parents, a majority of us have failed our young ones by not explaining these typical, commonly occurring topics.
I think it is about time we put in an effort to to remove the shame surrounding the act of sex and leave judgement aside while respecting the right to information that the younger generations rightfully own. We owe it to our future women, and certainly to our future men who through this, will eventually respect women differently because now they finally understand a little bit about them. I am hopeful. I know change is slow and we have a long way to go to achieve equal respect and understanding between men and women in every nook and corner of India. But again, I am determined to do what it takes, placing my skills and knowledge in order to assist those who seek my support and hold vision of an equitable India.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality