India’s National Family Welfare Programme has two core objectives:
1.To address the needs of families, notably women and children, and
2. To reduce population growth rates.
Despite the objectives listed above, the reality is that the programme in India has disproportionately focused on achieving population and demographic targets by increasing contraceptive prevalence, notably through female sterilization. Women’s needs and the concept of reproductive rights have been generally overlooked, and women’s unequal access to resources, including health care and the stark gender disparities across India, continues to be reflected in the general devaluation of women.
Despite the consensus on population reached at the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), there is alarming evidence of a resurgence of coercive population measures being introduced at the state level in an effort to discourage fertility. These measures are being levied against both men and women, for example through the use of social and economic incentives and disincentives, but have an especially devastating impact on women. The two-child norm policy for example is linked to gender-based violence and female infanticide.
Against this backdrop, the RRI at HRLN uses the legal system to combat violations of reproductive rights, to ensure the implementation of reproductive rights schemes, and to demand accountability where implementation is left wanting.
What HRLN Does
Human Rights Law Network seeks to enforce and uphold reproductive justice through the Reproductive Rights and Law Unit, but the work HRLN does goes beyond just the provision of reproductive health services; it also focuses on mistreatment, repression, and disrespect and abuse of women and young girls in the context of reproductive health and sexuality.
The Reproductive Rights and Law Unit established in Human Rights Law Network is the only nationwide initiative which uses the public interest litigation mechanism to bring about structural changes, and ultimately bring reproductive rights litigation to the centre stage. Whereas before, reproductive issues were generally considered outside the realm of ‘human rights’, the Reproductive Rights and Law Unit has institutionalized reproductive rights jurisprudence as an inherent part of human right
HRLN conducts fact-findings in areas where violations of reproductive rights are taking place. Once this data is collected and reports are collated, HRLN drafts public interest litigation petitions, and takes cases to both state High Courts and the Supreme Court, holding the government accountable by ordering them to implement their policy promises and put an end to abuses of reproductive rights, citing both national and international law. HRLN also seek compensation for those who have experienced reproductive rights abuses, such as forced sterilizations and denial of public health care. HRLN is unique because it bridges the gap between activism, research, and law, by reaching out to marginalized communities, documenting their experiences, and bringing these experiences to the courtroom.
Using activism, research, and the law, HRLN seeks to end coercive female sterilization, mass coerced hysterectomies, end coercive population control tactics, and address the violation of the rights of women and children and ensure that every woman receives dignified, quality, affordable healthcare.
- The right to food and nutrition
- Safe access to medical termination of pregnancy
- Information and access to family planning and contraception
It is because of the PILs brought by the RRI that reproductive rights have become justiciable in Indian courts and our team has had a number of real successes. RRI filed a PIL against the negligent (many women had no knowledge of what was happening to them) and abusive (incidents of bicycle pumps being used in place of surgical equipment had been reported) sterilisation of women in state-sponsored mass sterilisation camps. The case had a massive countrywide impact and set legal precedent ensuring access to safe and regulated sterilisation in the future. (See: Ramakant Rai & U.P. and Bihar Healthwatch Vs. Union of India).
Many public hospitals in India have weak infrastructures, poor operational conditions and lack essential equipment and medical supplies. Lack of functioning blood banks and blood storage facilities is of particular concern because lack of access to blood accounts for approximately 50% of all maternal deaths in India. The RRI was therefore delighted that after filing its petition in Madhya Pradesh (MP), which sought legal remedies following lengthy delays and illegal demands for money from the Bhind district hospital who had applied for a licence to set up a blood bank and conduct blood transfusions, the licence was immediately granted. Furthermore, the PIL resulted in major infrastructural overhauls of water and sanitation systems and an order that all government health centres in MP be equipped with electricity. (See: Sandesh Bansal v Union of India, Writ Petition No 9061/2008).
Despite the appalling circumstances surrounding the case of Shanti Devi, a member of a Scheduled Caste who died delivering her baby daughter at home without any medical assistance, it is one of RRI’s greatest successes to date due to the ground-breaking order issued by the Delhi High Court in March 2010. The Court ordered a maternal death audit be carried out with respect to the pregnancy-related death of Shanti Devi, thus setting both a national and international legal precedent by ensuring accountability for a maternal death. (See: Laxmi Mandal Vs. Deen Dayal Hari Nager Hospital & Ors).
In a case of Jaitun, emblematic of the multiple rights violations suffered by Indian women and girls as they attempt to vindicate their right to survive pregnancy with dignity, and illustrative of the corruption and collusion on the part of state and public health actors, RRI’s PIL secured an order for the Union of India to devise a set of instructions to ensure that persons living below the poverty line (BPL) get their entitlements to free medical care. (See: Jaitun v Maternity Home, MCD, Jangpura & Ors).
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