By Ramya Kudekallu, World YWCA Programme Associate.
When you are the daughter of a gynaecologist and the citizen of a country that was one of the first to have a national policy on family planning, you are no stranger to the issue. However, during my recent attendance of the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) in Addis Ababa, even a self-proclaimed ‘aware’ individual such as me got a serious education.
The concept of ‘Family Planning’ covers a broad spectrum of activities associated with sexual and reproductive health. It includes birth control methods, contraceptives or sexual commodities, sexuality education or awareness, fertility and the prevention and management of sexually transmitted infections. But truth be told, the issue weaves far further than the above mentioned parameters. The language has now found its way into the Constitution of nations, policy of economies and the business plans of private sectors.
A series of statistics were apparent throughout the event, showing that approximately 287,000 women die every year from problems caused by childbirth. According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (one of the co-sponsors) access to contraception can save women from this fatality.
But for me, the real conversation was around how we were going to include 4 very important terms in every discussion
Family planning in my home country of India began 48 years ago. What started as progressive policy making for the government is now the tipping point for our great 1.2 billion population, and although our uptake of contraceptives is on a steady increase, we still cannot seem to find a sense of ‘control’. We add up to 1,000,000 people to our population every 15 days!
So where are we faltering, if I believe we are at all faltering?
We do not talk about sex. No! I implore you not to cringe, cough or sigh while I say this because we both know it is true. We do not talk about sex. It is not just in India, but many parts of the world, conversations around reproductive health and awareness, be it biological or emotional, simply do not take place.
I am not speaking of the mechanics of it. To tell me about the birds and the bees is not enough. As a young person I want to know and understand what the act entails.
I require an environment that is open, free, safe and non-judgmental. I want an atmosphere that allows dialogue around acceptance of female sexuality, the possibility of choice and the idea of rights. I seek a corner in society where I can whisper of how I was assaulted, violated and left pregnant, where I can admit that I cannot give the child within me a life of love, opportunities or care. Grant me a health care system that looks beyond my marital status, my HIV status or class and let me tell you why I cannot swallow those pills you give me or how worried I am that this intrauterine device might make me believe I can never have children. Accept me deeper still when I tell you I sell my body for money, the blistering wounds on my skin are excruciating and although my circumstances are illegal or unacceptable, I still want to be healthy.
Every tradition and culture replaced one before it, and I have no doubt in my mind that the dynamics of our ever changing society will allow norms to change once again. My concern, however, is, what notion of change are we slowly going towards. I am not asking for a universal opinion but I am calling for a universal access to information so that we may have the facts to make that opinion for ourselves.
It is not as bleak as it seems. Community workers, health care providers, counsellors, youth and governments across the world have begun to pave the way for access to these rights. It is important that our solutions are appropriate and that we can scale up our practices. Scaling is crucial to sustainability.
The ICFP pulled me to the heart of the issue. I met a world of people in the great walls of the African Union who truly believed bringing the life of another into this planet was an event so precious, it had to be met with the possibility of care, good health, economic resources and security. I was struck by the dedication of young people, not just representing themselves, but a host of marginalised sects in society. Lastly I fell in love with an Ethiopia that opened its city to us and its people. 3.5 million Ethiopian women and men have felt the life-changing benefits of family planning – setting an example that truly ‘full access full choice’ is possible.
It is not about the population or numbers any more, China will agree with me, since they recently surprised the world with the change in their ‘one child policy’. It touches on a much more concrete and serious affair of value to human life and how each of us, individually or collectively, deserves to be of that profound value.