The idea of women pursuing ‘safe sex’ is somehow an issue of contention in the county. Most cannot fathom the reality of women seeking sexual pleasure for any other reason apart from reproduction. It messes with the accepted version of idealised femininity to an extent where so many married women around the country cannot even bring up the topic of contraception with their own partners.
Birth control methods are a means to promote health and welfare of a family but most importantly of women who bear the brunt of higher health risks associated with unwanted pregnancies. The country has struggled to cope with high rates of maternal mortality and although there are particular improvements in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the number of deaths in northern states such as Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are still exponentially high. Although these statistics have not quite pushed the government of India to implement schemes as much as certain other polarising issues.
Different family planning schemes in India have always placed the blame of ‘irresponsible breeding’ on a certain section of the country, mainly poor and working class women. Further extending the accusation and labelling them as the reason for India’s poverty. A flawed prophecy pushed forward by elite men with the support of upper caste women and called to control the ‘rising population’ of marginalised groups. These claims led to a drive of forced sterilisation (a process conducted with or without consent) in the 1970’s where many died from botched operations.
These pervasive ideas and flawed predictions had furthered classist-casteist and patriarchal notions leading to restricting the access to contraceptives for a majority of the women. What’s interesting about India’s current limited views around sex and desire is that these concepts were well regarded in Ancient India, with many ayurvedic, natural contraceptives available at the time. Although these methods should not be pursued in today’s age with little scientific backing and better alternatives present in the market, it’s interesting to note some of these innovations.
As noted by Enroute Indian History, A mechanical device made of stone, artificially induced changes to make the vaginal cavity rough or dry, herbal and herbo-mineral contraceptive preparations for local and oral use by men and women along with breathing exercises mentioned in the Upanishads (religious text) were among the earliest mention methods to prevent conception. It can be noticed how colonial ideas prevailing from their biassed religious views changed the fabric of Indian society. A country relatively open about sex and pleasure, fostering the collective ideas of maintaining a healthy population soon adopted a harmful mentality victimising marginalised women.
Over the last 100 years, the country has witnessed a number of improvements and innovations in the sector of family planning and specifically birth control methods. In the year 1949, Avabai Wadia, a lawyer by profession became the first woman to work towards birth control practices in the country and founded ‘The Family Planning Association of India’ (FPAI). Her efforts proved to be instrumental in improving the reproductive health of women in the country.
India is also responsible for creating the only non-hormonal birth control pill in the market, with the name ‘Saheli’ launched in 1991. Available free of cost, with little or no side-effects. Additionally India is closer to releasing the first male contraceptive injection to the market as well. With an efficacy of 13 years, the clinical trials for the world’s first injectable male contraceptive have been completed by The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and have been sent to the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) for approval, according to researchers involved in the project.
While all these innovations are great improvements in the science sector, these need to target the cause of women’s health. Bringing focus to reproductive choices and giving women the agency to make decisions for their own bodies. Many medical professionals such a Dr. Tanaya, present on social media, are bringing information related to contraceptives to a democratic platform and hence reaching a wider audience of women. We can only move forward from here by reworking the society to accept women as sexual beings, prioritising safe sex and better reproductive health care.
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