I should start by apologizing for my absence last week. I ended up without internet access for much longer than I anticipated on my last field visit.
I wanted to post about something that came up in response to my post last week and which I keep thinking about. I was surprised to find some Feministe readers in defense of population policy and, I think (though I might be mistaken) even in defense of coercive policy as a necessary tool to reduce population numbers. I understand the powerful wish to avoid exporting Western values and I think some of the responses posted in defense of population policies here may have been rooted in the wish to convey disapproval of my working here on the belief that I am imposing my “Western” values against coercion upon Indian women and political leaders. Please be assured that there are many women and social activists here who are vehemently against coercive policy and are working hard to combat it where it exists in state and national level policy. My feelings of aversion to coercive policy are not new to India.
But back to the arguments posted, I was surprised to hear the concern over high population numbers in India and the need for punitive population policy being voiced as in line with feminist values. So many background questions came to mind afterward–With regard to the discussion that popped up about the world’s limited resources and growing population, I pose a question I have been asked here by social justice activists: Can the answer to the population problem be found in reducing the numbers of people in India who live on infinitesimal amounts of food and water a day, or is it possible that the answer is in changing the gross consumption rates and energy and resource- indulgent lifestyles of the West? To the concern voiced about growing population numbers in India, I’d ask another question that has been posed to me by study respondents here in India: Has science ever actually defined the number of people the world and it’s resources can support, or is this fear of a “population bomb” about something else, more to do with which babies are being born than how many are being born? I’d welcome feedback from Feministe readers about both of these questions, but the biggest one I’m eager to pose to you is this one: Is there such thing as a feminist population policy?
Feminists in India and around the world have taken up staunch oppositional sides on this question. Some have argued, especially in years in which important international decisions about population policy are being made, that there has to be such a thing as a population policy that is feminist, because there must be ways to safeguard the health and rights of women and families while bringing down the fertility rate. This argument states that these policies continue to be introduced, and so it is important that feminist voices be a part of the conversation as the policy is drafted—to protect the rights of women and families and also, I think, maybe because the alternative is too grim. Standing outside the halls of power trying to stop the policy from existing at all is a different struggle altogether than trying to influence an already ongoing conversation in which funders and political leaders the world over are heavily invested. And yet, many feminists in India argue vociferously that fighting the creation of population policy itself is the only answer to the rights violations, coercion, and general lack-of-priority for the health and lives of women that they feel they have seen in Indian policy. So long as there is concern over “population policy” instead of “health policy,” and moreover so long as government health efforts and initiatives are housed under the larger framework of population policies, then the policy cannot be in line with feminist values because it’s not about the lives of women but about controlling the numbers they produce. Thus, the question. Is there such a thing as feminist population policy?
Having posed the question, I should add a few points. First, I am not decided on the issue and think there is much more to be learned, so understand this is not a rhetorical post I’m writing. Second, to give further context, there are a number of policy influencers in India right now who feel optimistic about the future of this country with regard to the population policy versus health policy question. The National Rural Health Mission is, for example, a high-level project of the Indian government right now and it is not housed (at least officially) under any larger population policy framework. Further, there are growing numbers of influential stakeholders in India who are committed to shifting the focus from punitive population policy to increasing the availability of quality services like vaccinations, contraceptive methods, as well as increasing the availability of schools and raising the social status of women as the means to curb population growth. Coercion, at least when on the record with a tape recorder on, does not seem to be on the table as a desirable option. How coercion is defined is of course often another important question– offering Rs 500 for the first and second child born but not for the third is thought by some as a simple reward where for others it is a coercive incentive targeting poor families who are the only ones who would need Rs 500 badly enough to base their reproductive decisions on it. …At any rate, all of this is to say that the landscape in which I am asking this question is constantly shifting. So I pose this question about feminist population policy not only in reference to India, but in general. What do you think? Is a feminist population policy possible?
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