Tribal Women in Chhattisgarh Win Right to Access Contraception

The lack of legal family planning services to tribal communities was making women undertake unsafe methods to induce abortions.

New Delhi: A 1979 government order disallowing members from the “particularly vulnerable tribal groups” (PVTG) from accessing family planning options has been finally struck down by the Chhattisgarh high court.

The archaic order prevented members of PVTGs from availing family planning services like tubectomies and vasectomies.

The thinking and apprehension at that time was that these communities have a “declining or stagnant population” and also low levels of literacy. Banning the communities from accessing family planning measures was seen as a way to stymie the dropping numbers of these communities.

Also Read: Under Garb of ‘Preservation’, Chhattisgarh Is Denying Vulnerable Groups Their Reproductive Rights

The new government order will come as a reprieve to at least 1.55 lakh people from Chhattisgarh’s PVTGs who may want to access family planning options.

The public interest litigation was fought by eight Baiga women and two Baiga men, Harendra Sijwali from Ganiyari and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (People’s Health Movement) Chhattisgarh.

“No scientific reason” for the order

In 1979, the order was passed by the health department in Madhya Pradesh, before Chhattisgarh was carved out of the state in 2000.

The repressive and archaic order carried on into the administrative structure of the new state of Chhattisgarh, which has a large tribal population.

Only last year, the state government of Chhattisgarh looked into the matter and proposed a change: a new government order permitted sterilisation, but PVTGs would still need to take permission from the sub-divisional magistrate.

The petitioners told the court that there was “no scientific reason or basis” for this administrative direction.

They also said that this government intrusion was violative of their right to privacy.

Women who underwent sterilisation surgery at a government mass sterilisation camp pose for pictures inside a hospital at Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh November 14, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Women who underwent sterilisation surgery at a government mass sterilisation camp pose for pictures inside a hospital at Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh November 14, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Baiga community’s fight to have family planning

The public interest litigation was fought by eight women from the Baiga tribe in Chhattisgarh, as well as other community members and also the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.

In Chhattisgarh, there are five PVTGs: Abhujmaria, Kamar, Pahadi Korwa, Birhor and Baiga.

The Baigas are largest in number, at 71,862 people.

India has identified 75 such groups and classified them as “PVTGs.” They are spread across 18 states and one union territory.

But a recent study on health inequities among PVTGs, which the court took cognizance of, found that the Baiga community was very keen to access family planning.

“The restriction on sterilisation had very negative impact on health of women and children and economic status of family,” says the court order.

This had led to a large number of maternal and child deaths.

On being surveyed, Baiga adults said they “did not want large families and demanded contraceptive services like sterilization.”

Also Read: Aadhaar Deprives Jharkhand’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribes: Survey

The strictness of the law coupled with the lack of health services forced many women to go to the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh to get sterilised. Government health workers said they had a shortage of contraceptives like Mala-D and condoms.

Another study in 2017 by the non-profit grassroots organisation, Jan Swasthya Sahyog, found that in two villages in the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, 56.4% of Baiga women said they wanted to undergo sterilization. About 48.2% of them managed to get the operation done and 51.7% could not because of their PVTG status.

This then pushes women to opt for unsafe abortions, including “self-medication to terminate pregnancy, massaging the stomach or consuming jadi-buti to induce the abortion,” notes the court order.

Poor health status of the Baiga community

The court notes that the first study showed very high levels of malnutrition among Baiga children and undernourishment among adults.

Children were also underweight and stunted, 1.5 times more than the state’s average. Undernourished Baiga adults were double the state’s average. And illness in general was six times more than rural Chhattisgarh at large.

Provision of state health services has failed. Most Baigas were found relying on unqualified private practitioners or nurses and midwives. Some areas were “completely devoid” of anganwadi services.