On November 14, the second case to be developed under the Center for
Reproductive Rights’ South Asia Reproductive Justice and Accountability
Initiative (SARJAI) was filed in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana at
Chandigarh. The Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), the Center’s partner in India,
filed this public
case which calls on the government to protect women’s reproductive health by
providing access to a full range of contraceptive methods, information, and
services, and consequently end the violations of women’s fundamental and human
rights arising from the lack of access.
women’s rights activist Dr. Jagmati Sangwan, through her women’s empowerment
non-governmental organization, Himmat Mahila Samooh, is the petitioner in this
case. Government studies show that despite numerous policy commitments to
improve contraceptive access, the unmet need for contraceptives in Haryana in
fact has shown an increase since 2004. Without access to contraceptives, women
face unplanned pregnancies that carry higher risks of maternal death and injury:
lead to unsafe abortions, cause mental anguish, and compromise their ability to
make crucial decisions about their health and lives. These risks are
particularly acute for women in Haryana, where government studies show that
maternal mortality has risen in the past decade.
petition alleges that women face serious barriers to accessing contraceptive
information and services in Haryana due to flawed state policies and the
failure of the state government to implement national-level policy guarantees.
Citing government reports, findings by a Jindal Global Law School study on
contraceptive access in Haryana last year, and HRLN’s own fact-finding work,
the petition raises the following specific barriers to access to contraceptive
information and services that must be addressed by the Haryana government:
- Failure to ensure that women have access to the full
range of contraceptive methods, proper information, and quality services,
state-level policies relating to contraceptives focus disproportionately on
permanent methods, rather than aiming to provide women with the information
they need to choose a contraceptive method that suits their reproductive needs.
This has resulted in barriers to access for women who may need short-term
contraceptives to time and space their pregnancies. Studies cited show that women in
Haryana lack knowledge about the full range of contraceptive methods, including
condoms, intrauterine devices, and oral contraceptive pills. Women report that
contraceptives provided by the government are of poor quality and unreliable.
- Inadequate support for health volunteers responsible
for contraceptive counselling,
In order to combat high rates of maternal and infant mortality, the
Indian government established a corps of female village-level health volunteers
who are responsible for ensuring women’s access to contraceptive information
and services. However, Haryana continues to fall far short of its commitment to
appoint and train the 17,000 volunteers necessary to effectively implement this
program. Further, there are no volunteers focused on reaching out to men
concerning contraceptive use, which is a contributing factor leading to women
bearing a disproportionate burden in preventing unintended pregnancies.
- Social barriers, including stigma.
Substantial stigma surrounds contraceptive
use, which further impedes women in their ability to information and services. Studies
show that women who discuss contraception may face judgment or be labeled
promiscuous, yet the government has not taken steps to address this stigma.
failure of the Haryana government to address these barriers violates women’s
rights as protected under the Indian constitution as well as under human rights
law, and detracts from commitments made in national policies. The petition
argues that the failure to ensure adequate reproductive health services constitutes
discrimination and violates the guarantee of nondiscrimination and equal
protection in the constitution. Further, by placing women’s health at risk, the
Haryana government is in violation of its obligation to protect women’s
fundamental right to life, which is interpreted to include the right to health.
India’s National Population Policy also upholds women’s right to the full range
of contraceptive methods and commits to a target-free approach to family
planning. Haryana’s policies violate
this commitment by setting targets for female
sterilization and actively promoting this method over others. The failure
to ensure women’s access to contraceptive information and services is a
violation of human rights law, which both the central Indian government as well
as the Haryana government are legally obligated to respect, protect, and
remedies sought by the petitioners include the following actions on the part of
the Haryana government:
- make immediately available the full range of contraceptive methods,
and all related information and counselling at all health facilities,
- employ a male health worker at every primary health clinic to
ensure male participation and education on contraception,
- monitor the quality of contraception through randomized tests, and
the establishment of an independent committee of medical officers, community
members, and social activists, and
- develop a comprehensive plan for addressing social and cultural
barriers to accessing contraception, including monthly information campaigns.
The Center provided technical support on the
petition through SARJAI, which launched in 2012 and seeks to build a robust
body of law that will secure safe and accessible reproductive health care for
women in South Asia, ensure that governments in the region adopt and fully
implement appropriate reproductive health laws and policies, and protect
women’s access to vital reproductive health care.