Playing With Balloons, or How to Use a Condom in the Hinterland

In the year UP chief minister Adityanath turned the 'suhaag raat' into the stuff of national headlines, Khabar Lahariya follows the trail of condoms in rural Bundelkhand.

A photograph of children in Chitrakoot playing with all the free condoms. Credit: Khabar Lahariya

A photograph of children in Chitrakoot playing with free condoms. Credit: Khabar Lahariya

Of all the reasons we love Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, his ‘shagun kit’ has to be the best. Adityanath’s response to the central government’s Mission Parivar Vikas, which was to be launched on July 11, World Population Day, was an announcement that newlyweds would be presented with a kit containing condoms, pills and other auspicious items (like nail cutters).

Five months later, to the day, on December 11, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting declared that condom ads wouldn’t be aired between 10 am and 6 pm, deeming them unfit for children.

A few weeks later, combing the villages of Chitrakoot during sterilisation season (winter is good for fast healing, necessary when you have one bed to three women in most sterilisation camps), we came across a bunch of kids blowing condom balloons. We won’t say we didn’t chuckle at the irony.

As our 1.3 billion population rushes to overtake China’s, government programmes have zeroed in on providing access to birth control in 145 districts of the seven most-populated states. UP is the highest contributor to the national population.

As is well known, women are the cultural and policy-enforced bearers of the brunt of family planning efforts. Over years of reporting on sterilisation camps, the narrative on sterilisation in India hasn’t changed much and statistics support this narrative. Female sterilisation accounts for 75% of modern family planning methods used, according to the 2015-2016 National Health Survey.

Male sterilisation operations, although highly incentivised, are rare, as they are misconstrued to be debilitating: an impossible situation wherein men are misconstrued to be the main supporters of the family. Consequently, women and the poorest are targeted and incentivised (Rs 1400 for a tubectomy, Rs 100 for a contraceptive shot) to have often scarring, traumatic and failed operations in terrible conditions.

So what is the state of other, more harmless forms of contraception which men could get involved with, without stealing their main source of strength?

In the build up to the year the latex condom turns 100 and the year that Adityanath made the ‘suhaag raat‘ hit national headlines, Khabar Lahariya followed the trail of condoms in rural Bundelkhand.

Interviewing health workers responsible for the distribution of condoms (and the shagun kit) in rural areas, it emerged clearly that the latex contraceptive isn’t seeing much traction. Kiran Devi, an ASHA worker in Karwi giggles coyly when asked if she uses condoms and says that this is a fad for the younger generation. “Men in these parts are scoundrels and they just give the condoms to the kids to play with. So now we don’t distribute them, we just give them to people who ask.” Ramji Pandey, the chief medical officer, should be informed about this – he says that the condoms are made freely available in public places (‘chaurah par’) so even people shy of asking can access them.

A very serious Kalpana, from Lalitpur, says that the condom is something that is used when married women have their period to prevent infections. She says that she has no use for them since her husband works outside the district, and anyway when she has her period they “have nothing to do with each other”.

Like all government schemes, Mission Parivaar Vikas is built on dovetailing, ‘convergence’ of existing rural health entitlements and infrastructure and the catch phrase of creating an ‘enabling environment’ in order for the scheme to be effective.

Clearly, the ASHA workers haven’t been given this brief. Maybe the anti-Romeos can be given an extension on their social welfare brief for Adityanath’s orders to reach the real last-mile beneficiaries of his shagun kit.

This piece first appeared on Khabar Lahariya.

Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.

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