“No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”
Margaret Sanger, 1920 (Woman and the New Race)
NOTE: The following information is intended as supplementary information to our film Small Family, Happy Family. If you’ve seen the film and are eager to take action, welcome! If you haven’t watched the film but are interested in doing so, please contact Annie and Zoe for information on future screenings.
No country in the world has attempted to control fertility over as long a period of time as India. From before the time India was an independent country, foreign powers were interested in how to control India’s large and growing population. As one study said, India was the “great cauldron” in which new policies, contraceptives and political techniques have been tested over time. But these efforts have always been tinged with racism, born at the same time as the eugenics movement was gaining popularity. It was said by Imam Hossain, a representative of Bihar and Orissa, “it is a matter which primarily concerns the masses, the dumb millions, whose voice is never heard in the Councils of the Government… It is not what they want but what is good for them.”
And the brunt of this effort has fallen on women. India’s solution to the “problem” of population, since the 1970’s, has been primarily female sterilization. Overtime, through large scale propaganda efforts paired with financial incentives, “family planning” has become synonymous with “female sterilization.” Today, over one in three women is sterilized [pdf] and the average age of sterilization is only 25 years old [pdf]. Though the language has shifted from speaking about “population control” to speaking about “reproductive rights,” the intention has remained largely the same.
In 2016, the Supreme Court of India handed down a decision based on the case brought by Devika Biswas concerning the women in Araria district of Bihar. The Court found that the sterilization camps featured in the film were unconstitutional because they failed to maintain a level of quality that was acceptable. Sterilization camps were to be phased out by 2019. And yet, they continue today.
For decades, women of color have been advocating for Reproductive Justice, a hybrid framework of reproductive rights and social justice that more effectively addresses the needs of marginalized women, like Mitilesh. Reproductive Justice is defined by the US-based SisterSong as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
One of the aims of our documentary is to shift the perspective not only about how we can advance the cause of reproductive justice and a more holistic approach in India, but also around the world. How can we shift the conversation about “reproductive rights” in the US to take into account a wider range of issues and the intersection of racism and sexism, both historically and today.
Links to Further Reading
DHS Report provides comprehensive information on various health indicators
Sama Resource Group for Women and Health has a great collection of reports
The Center for Health and Social Justice works for reproductive justice in India and produces research reports
The Human Rights Law Network is the foremost human rights law organization in India working for reproductive justice
Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population - Michael Connelly
Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India 1877 - 1947 - Sanjam Ahluwalia
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty - Dorothy Roberts
Reproductive Justice: An Introduction - Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger
If you’d like to get involved in the movement for reproductive justice, we recommend volunteering or donating with Sister Song, a US based reproductive justice coalition focusing on women of color and indigenous women.