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Right To Family Planning: A New Women's Right

Right To Family Planning: A New Woman's Right

By Kamala Sarup

When women couldn't achieve their goals at the national level they took the issues to the international level. They have used this strategy in connection with the right to family planning, women's rights over their body and deciding on the number and spacing of their children. The family planning issue was not discussed when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up. However, it has become a recognized basic human right, which has had a major impact on the advancement of women's status and their lives during the past century. Women's right and means to control their own fertility also improves the possibility of controlling their lives in general and realizing their other human rights. These include the right to education and training, to undertake economic activities of their own, and to participate in the political, cultural and social spheres in their countries.

In 1994, Nepalese women were significantly less likely than men to know a source of contraception. By 1997, awareness of a source of family planning methods had increased significantly for both men and women. Personal approval of family planning was high in 1994 with over 90 percent of both men and women saying that they approved of couples using contraception.

The right to family planning is a "latecomer" when compared with women's political and legal rights; as late as the 1960s it was still a fairly new issue around the world. However, it rapidly gained support within the women's movement of the industrialized countries. The UN and some densely populated countries-with India in the forefront-began to take an interest because population growth was regarded more and more as a major problem. However, family planning was very controversial within the UN, where it was categorically opposed by many nations strongly influenced by Catholicism-led by the Holy See-and by Islamic countries.

The right to family planning was recognized for the first time as a human right in the 1968 Declaration of Teheran, which resulted from the International Conference on Human Rights. In the following year it was included in the Declaration on Social Progress and Development by the UN General Assembly. In the 1970s the issue was constantly debated at the General Assembly and in world conferences.

Countries opposing promotion of and education in family planning for women, as well as the provision of contraceptives, threatened to withdraw all support from agencies such as UNICEF and the UNFPA if they included family planning in their programmes. Political controversy managed to slow down the process of promoting family planning, but not to bring it to a standstill. Women's organizations and development agencies continued to support and demand it. Development aid organizations in the United States and politicians in particular regarded birth control in the developing countries as one of the most important forms of development aid. Women delegates to UN conferences and women's NGOs created networks with UN organizations and kept the issue alive, while disputes in the General Assembly persisted. Women activists saw this as a major issue for women in general and not just for those from the developing countries.

The right to family planning became a major issue at the first UN World Population Conference in 1974. Very precise formulations on the issue were adopted by the 1975 World Conference of the International Women's Year (IWY) in Mexico. Its World Plan of Action and Declaration said that "every couple and every individual has the right to decide freely and responsibly whether or not to have children as well as to determine their number and spacing, and to have information, education and means to do so" (United Nations, 1975).

The right to family planning is more specifically defined in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It reaffirms this right as a binding obligation of the Member States. In the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, the concepts of "reproductive rights and reproductive health" were defined and adopted. These new formulations expanded understanding of the issue.

It is sad to know, in Nepal, most women die each day from pregnancy-related complications. Ninety percent of deliveries are carried out at home without skilled care. There is no assistance available for 11 percent of the deliveries. Of the 2,786 physicians registered with the Nepal Medical Council, only 130 are obstetricians/gynecologists, and almost all of them are concentrated in Katmandu Valley and other urban centers. According to the national census, adolescents comprise 24 percent of Nepal's 23.3 million population. With their reproductive life ahead of them, they are a vulnerable and under-served group. Even in urban areas, women are unaware about reproductive health.

Women are the poorest even within poor households. The distribution of power, income, and decision making all contribute to male supremacy. Keen observation suggests that women are always closer to nature and environment. They are concerned with drinking water, fuel-wood and fodder, farming, childbearing and rearing, and food and shelter for the family. Since the quality and quantity of food for the household too depends upon the women, the nutritional status of the total population is also largely dependent on the knowledge of nutrition among women. The irony is that women have been serving submissively as sub-ordinates.

In Nepal sixty percent of the married women do not want another pregnancy immediately after giving birth to their first child, but among them only 17.7 percent have access to family planning devices. Gender inequality is rampant in all aspects of Nepali society and although women comprise 50.3 per cent of the population, the literacy is only 30 per cent compared to 66 per cent for males.

The National Health Policy (1991) seeks to reach reproductive health services and family planning up to the village level through health institutions in Nepal. In each VDCs 3199 sub health posts were supposed to be established and 205 Primary Health Care Centres in each electoral constituency. The concept of reproduction, the dangers attached with repeated pregnancy, abortion and safe motherhoods of birth control have to be taught and advocated right from the grass root level only then the maternal mortality rate can be checked and reduced to some extent.

Many governmental and non-governmental organisations have several women empowerment programmes that are focused merely on cutting, stitching and tailoring and making pickles. These programmes have rather projected a poor image of women. Only a few organisations have created awareness for women to participate in social and political decision making.

Nepalese women know, with the right to family planning, another basic human right becomes a reality: the right to be born a wanted child. It is easy to understand how infinitely important this is as a fundamental human right at the beginning of a new life. In practice, the right and access to family planning is an asset for entire families-men, women and children. It is important even from an economic point of view because it helps families to plan better to provide nourishment, care, housing and education for their children.

However, many women marry young, and a strong value is placed on having many children, especially sons. According to a family planning survey the desire to have a son by women without children was found to be 86 per cent and 100 per cent of women who already had three girls desired for a son.


The right to family planning is an excellent example of an issue fought for on many fronts over decades. From 1968 onwards it was brought up in every relevant context at UN conferences and in resolutions-despite often forceful protest.

According to the Cairo Programme of Action (United Nations, 1994), "Reproductive health implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this are the rights of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice" (paragraphs 7.2 and 7.3). Reproductive health and rights received even more precise and extensive formulation in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, which reconfirms the definitions formulated in Cairo (paragraphs 94-96).

When policies promoting reproductive health and rights are implemented, even controversial issues such as abortion and teenage pregnancy become easier to address.

Progress on this issue could not have been achieved without women's collaboration, despite borders separating them and government opposition. Nevertheless, the struggle to achieve implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women continues, even in countries that have ratified it. From women's point of view, the single most important international legal instrument adopted by the UN is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, also known as the Convention on the Rights of Women.(3)

In fact, the Convention does not imply any specific women's rights but is a reflection of the reality that universally- recognized human rights are still not enjoyed equally by women and men. If they were, no convention on the elimination of discrimination against women would be needed. The very necessity of this Convention is revealing and paradoxical, and it bears witness to continuing discrimination.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women incorporates the principles of women's rights and gender equality into international law. The Convention was unanimously adopted in 1979 and entered into force two years later following ratification by the required 20 governments. Ratified by 165 governments by March 2000, the Convention has become one of the most widely-ratified UN human rights conventions. Although this does not necessarily guarantee implementation in all countries, it provides an invaluable instrument for women everywhere as they work toward the development of national legislation and the elimination of discrimination against them.

In addition, the Convention provides for follow-up by the UN regarding practical implementation in Member States. It calls for the establishment of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which States Parties to the Convention are obliged to report on progress of implementation every four years. CEDAW also has the right to invite governments individually to a hearing about their measures toward implementation of the provisions.

Furthermore, in October 1999 the General Assembly endorsed an Optional Protocol to the Convention. It provides CEDAW with the mandate to hear petitions and complaints of individual citizens, groups of individuals and concerned NGOs about violations of the Convention.

(Kamala Sarup is editor to )

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