Talk with a family planner

Highly educated, career-oriented women are the exception in most developing countries. For that reason, they are often found at the forefront of issues like women's rights and social welfare. This is the first in a series of conversations with four such women, interviewed by Monitor staff writer Kristin Helmore in major cities around the globe. Not far from the cities of tattered tents on the outskirts of this majestic capital, Rami Chhabra works in the sparsely furnished offices of India's Family Planning Foundation.

The blinds are drawn against the insistent heat outside, and the elderly air conditioner rumbles noisily. The middle-class tranquility of the street called Golf Links just beyond that air conditioner seems remote from the nearby tent cities, where every day countless families pour in from nearby villages in search of work, where women cook over improvised stoves and wash their children in the gutters in water they have carried from far away, and where men rest from the heat on string cots when they cannot find a job.

But those tents are at the heart of Rami Chhabra's workaday world.

A respected journalist since the 1960s, her career took a turn eight years ago toward hands-on participation in the search for solutions to her country's population crisis.

India is a vast subcontinent which has recently become self-sufficient in food. Yet it still cannot provide adequate housing, basic services, education, or employment for most of its 750 million people. Family planning efforts have succeeded in lowering the birth rate to 34 per thousand -- below the norm of 37 per thousand for south central Asia. (In North America, the birth rate is 15 per thousand.)

The average Indian woman has four to five children -- fewer than in any other country in the region except Sri Lanka. Even so, India's population is expected to double in the next 32 years.

In a recent interview, Rami Chhabra, director of communications and women's programs at the Family Planning Foundation, discussed the difficulties of promoting a lower birth rate in India -- difficulties that have been compounded by public reaction against the government's aggressive approach to birth control in the 1970s. She wore a golden-yellow cotton sari, though her hair is short and tousled, Western-style. She emphasized the importance of pursuing a family planning policy sensitive to people's life patterns and basic needs; and she spoke of her hopes and concerns for her country's future. It seems that with early marriage in India you don't have the problem of unmarried teen-age mothers that exists in the West.

You're right, but we do have oppressions of a different kind. You don't have illegitimate children, but you do have a very high incidence of teen-age motherhood within legitimate marriage. And you have these poor girls trapped into a way of life from which there can be no escape. By the time they're in their mid-20s, they've already got four, five children and they've never had any kind of literacy, they've never had any skill-building, and even though many of them work, they work at the most low-paid jobs, with the highest drudgery content. They will take any job because they can't move away -- the family is there. They've got to take care of the family somehow, so they can't go forward to get the training, the skill-building.

So you have that fairly grim scenario. And that has to be changed. Sure, you've got to watch out that in changing that you don't bring the destructive elements that we see in many other parts of the world. Do these women often seek family planning without the consent of their husbands?

We know of many women whose husbands don't consent and they still come in for sterilization -- which is evidence of how much they want it. . . . [But] it's not that the entire program of female sterilization rests on women hoodwinking their husbands. . . . By and large these women come in with the cooperation of their husbands. But if they've already had several children, this isn't going to bring the birth rate down.

Of course not. Unfortunately, it's after they've already had four or five children, at the point where exhaustion sets in. You're right: it's not going to bring the population down. But I think, from a feminist perspective -- if you're really concerned with humanity and with women's status, you've got to ensure that these women are as much considered a critical group to be serviced by the government as a group that would give results in terms of population control. The older women are the most vulnerable group in terms of their own health requirements, in terms of their own emotional requirements. They need family planning far more than a younger person. If younger women don't get family planning of some kind, won't they find themselves in the position of those older women in a few years?

That's right. But as far as young women are concerned, it's not official policies which are going to enable them to come to family planning -- it's change in their social environment.

Of course, you're going to have to do many things within the ministry of health where the family planning program is in order to service the younger group. But the more critical part of the work will be outside, and that brings us to the issue of women's status.

I see the issues of family planning as increasingly crucial to women's status and vice versa. The focus on family planning comes within the framework of human development and human betterment. Unless those issues are addressed family planning is not going to work.

What can we do to postpone the age of marriage? Your first major contraceptive must be that. The mean age of marriage In India now is 18.2 years. That means that in large parts of the country marriages are taking place much below that.

If you're going to work with these younger women, the work has to be in postponing the age of marriage, giving them options in life, helping to develop the skills that can bring them alternatives to motherhood and marriage. Was it problems like this that, in 1978, drew you into family planning in the first place?

[That] was a period of high visibility for this issue, and great controversy. The official program of the mid-'70s had misfired, and for the first time in Indian history family planning was a dirty word. The policies went on, but the work ran kind of slow motion.

I had been writing a lot on the subject, and I came to the conclusion that what had not happened in family planning was even more disastrous than what had happened during the emergency period [of martial law under Indira Gandhi from 1975 to early 1977].

This organization was perhaps just waiting for somebody to be thinking along these lines. They came to me and said, ``Don't pour rhetoric into newspapers. If you're really serious, come and work with us on these issues.'' Do you feel that efforts to limit population growth in India will really do the job?

For the first time there's a little ray of hope on the horizon. This young Prime Minister [Rajiv Gandhi] is talking about women's issues, unlike his mother who was a reluctant feminist. As a woman who had made it, she didn't want to be pinned down as a woman Prime Minister, she wanted to rise above it.

But this young man has no such inhibitions. He has been refreshingly supportive on all these questions and, being his mother's son, he has an idea of what a modern woman is, what is the balance of home and work, and he has seen it work beautifully.

I think we can lay our hopes on him. He has taken some steps which are very promising. He's created the Human Resource Development Ministry, and he has put the ministries for women and youth within it, together with education. This is such a significant thing. Our media has completely bypassed this kind of fairly historic structural change. It's one of the most critical things he's done. What is your vision of the future?

I find myself in an optimistic frame of mind, with hope that things are going to change in a worthwhile direction. If they don't, on the other hand, it really is a crucial time for India. It almost is a road of no return because things will become so desperate. One shudders to think what the future will hold, on all counts. It's not just the spiralling population that has to be controlled, but the environment, the situation of women. As we've always said, development is being eroded because if you leave half of society behind, what kind of development can take place?

This is the moment when we are saying there's a new wave in this country, let's give it a chance.

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