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The Word on Women – Forced sterilization and the Millennium Development Goals

 

By Widney Brown

Two reports by the BCC this month raise the spectre that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals which include reducing maternal mortality and ensuring environmental sustainability may actually be undermining women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

The BBC has reported on the UK government’s Department for International Development is funding a program of forced sterilization of both men and women in India.

As happens all too often, poor tribal women seem to be particularly targeted for the forced sterilization.

And if being sterilized against your will is not bad enough, there are also reports of long term suffering because the procedures were botched.

The also ran a shocking exposé on allegations of forced sterilization of women in Uzbekistan. In the report, an unnamed government official made the link between reducing fertility rates and the MDGs.

Since the world’s population topped 7 billion people toward the end of 2011, the language of “population control” has increasing crept back into the discourse. Implicit in the concept is a focus on preventing poor people from having a lot of children, echoing the ideas promoted by Thomas Malthus, a British clergy and economist in the late 1700s.

There is no question that an increase in the number of people in the world has a negative impact on the environment and biodiversity. However, returning to the draconian measures of forced sterilization undermines fundamental principles of human rights and ignores what we have learned about how to lower fertility rates without resorting to force.

Amnesty International has long warned the international community of the dangers of defining quantitative development goals without a strong normative human rights framework.

Public health logic may hold that reducing fertility rates leads to slower population growth and lowers maternal mortality rates. But forced sterilization violates the principle that men and women have a right to make independent choices regarding the number and spacing of their children without discrimination, coercion and violence.

Study after study demonstrates that empowering women through ensuring access to education, promoting women’s economic independence, and providing women access to comprehensive contraceptive and other health services reduces fertility rates and leads to better public health results. Where women are able to decide independently when, how often, with whom, and with what frequency to have children, the consequence is more often than not only do maternal and infant mortality rates go down, so too do fertility rates.

To be clear, forced sterilization is in and of itself a violation of human rights. It is the type of violation that has long term consequences for individuals and society. Perhaps most immediate is its destruction of the bond of trust between patient and medical service provider. When that bond is broken, women are less apt to see critical pre and post-natal care when they are pregnant.

There is speculation that the report by the BBC on Uzbekistan may mask another issue: women seeking sterilization but not informing their families because they will be ostracized for not wanting to have more children. But this alternative narrative underscores the importance of promoting women’s rights and gender equality to ensure that women and their partners can freely exercise their reproductive rights. Women who feel their only control over their fertility is to be secretly sterilized are clearly not able to make their own decisions.

Regardless of which explanation is correct in , it highlights the integral connection between promoting women’s rights and gender equality and reduced fertility rates. Like , has a long way to go toward demonstrating its commitment to women’s rights and gender equality.

Rejecting forced sterilization policies does not leave governments’ with no alternatives. They can ensure that young people have access to comprehensive sex education and contraceptive services. They can discourage early marriage and promote education at the secondary and tertiary level paying particular attention to why women and girls often drop out of school.

Anti-natalist policies adopted by governments should not be discriminatory or undermine people’s fundamental rights.

The international community needs to pay heed to stories like these on India and Uzbekistan which so clearly illustrate how agreeing the Millennium Development Goals without ensuring a human rights framework for the goals, contribute to undermining women’s rights.

People living in poverty can be empowered through direct engagement in identifying the problems, defining and implementing solutions, and in evaluating the effectiveness of those solutions, thus promoting the sustainability of progress.

When the international community convenes in the next couple of years to decide a post 2015 development strategy, it is important that it take on board the dangers of promoting quantitative goals while ignoring the importance of human rights in empowering people living in poverty.

Without a human rights framework, people become the objects of government policies and practices, rather than empowered, unique, and autonomous rights holders. Development practices designed with normative human rights standards in mind enable people living in poverty to be the subjects actively working their way out of poverty.

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