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India: The two-child norm, a sword hanging over women

Apr 25, 2013

The two-child norm, introduced in India for local government, or panchayat, elections in 1992, has affected the political participation of women primarily from marginalised communities, writes Swapna Majumdar.

Delhi: When Kanti Naik, 38, won elections to the ward panchayat in Banda in Angul, Odisha, in 2007, she was overjoyed. Having studied only up to Class 2, her life till then had revolved around cooking, cleaning and looking after her husband, three daughters and two sons. But after winning from the reserved seat with a huge majority, she saw this as an opportunity to do something more by reaching out to other women in her scheduled caste community.

Little did she know that her dream was short-lived. Four months after elections, a complaint was filed by her opponent demanding she be dismissed for violating the two-child norm eligibility criteria laid down for contesting panchayat positions in Odisha. When she appeared before the District Collector, who had sent her the notice, she explained that no one had raised any objections when she had filed her nomination. Therefore, she should be allowed to continue.

But Naik had to step down. “This incident depressed me. I did not know about the two-child norm and that I would be affected by it. Everything was over within eight months of my election. I didn’t even get an opportunity to do any work,” she rues.

Naik is not the only woman who has felt betrayed. The two-child norm, introduced in India for local government, or panchayat, elections in 1992, has affected the political participation of women primarily from marginalised communities. “The norm seriously affects the political participation of women from the dalit, adivasi and other backward communities. It has led to their disqualification, as most of them have more than two children. This norm has disempowered women thereby undermining the basic principal of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment,” contends Abhijit Das, convenor of the New Delhi-based National Coalition Against Two-Child Norm and Coercive Population Policies.

It was soon after the 1991 Census that the government adopted the two-child norm recommended by former Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran in a bid to control India’s growing population by prohibiting persons with more than two children from holding any post in the panchayats and urban local bodies. States which follow this norm include Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar (applicable in municipalities), Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

According to the National Family Health Survey, NFHS 3 (2005-06), most Indian states, including some high fertility states in the north, have reached replacement level fertility. In other words, a majority of couples do not wish to have more than two children. And yet, some states continue to push the two-child norm, instead of focusing on increasing access to healthcare and family planning services. This violation of women’s reproductive rights is inherent in denying those with more than two children the benefits of over 20 government schemes related to maternal and child health, either overtly or covertly.

Health activists feel the government is promoting this policy in the name of population stabilisation. Centrally sponsored schemes that deny benefits to women with more than two children include the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, National Maternity Benefit Scheme, Ballika Samriddhi Yojna, Janashree Bima Yojna, Shiksha Sahayog Yojna and the Janani Suraksha Yojna.

State governments also promote similar programmes. Schemes such as Devi Rupak (Haryana), Mamata (Odisha), Bhagyalakshmi (Karnataka), Girl Child Protection scheme (Andhra Pradesh), Balri Rakshak Yojna (Punjab), Ladli (Delhi), Pannadhai Jeevan Amrit Yojna (Rajasthan) and Ladli Lakshmi Yojna (Madhya Pradesh) are some of the initiatives that seek to reward women with only two children. “Poor women know one out of every 15 children born to them will not survive until the first birthday due to our shocking rates of infant and newborn mortality. So they are desperate to have at least one or two that will stay alive. But they find themselves excluded from benefits because of such conditions,” says Jashodhara Dasgupta of the National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights (NAMHHR), a group of 17 NGOs working on gender and health.

In Odisha, where the two-child norm has been in place since 1994, innumerable women in the reproductive age group have been impacted with the minimum age for contesting elections having been lowered from 26 to 21 years. According to a 2007 study conducted Sama Resource Group for Women and Health, a New Delhi-based NGO promoting women’s right, the implementation of the norm led to an increase in pre-natal sex determination tests resulting in the abortion of female foetuses.

Six years on, the situation hasn’t changed. According to Sukanta Mahapatra of the Hunger Project in Odisha, the enforcement of the two child norm on panchayat representatives has led to increased discrimination against the girl child and worsening the already declining child sex ratio in the state. There has been a sharp decline in the child sex ratio - from 953 girls for every 1000 boys in the 0-6 year age group in 2001 Census to 934 in the latest 2011 Census. “A rise in sex selective abortions leading to a skewed sex ratio is further perpetuated with the prevalence of this norm. While it is true that these problems were not created just by the two child norm, its existence has worsened women’s health and wellbeing,” says Mahapatra.

Ironically, while Odisha has increased reservation for women in local bodies from 33 per cent to 50, the two child norm acts as a barrier for their effective political participation. “The norm only benefits and strengthens traditional structures of patriarchy that have always restricted women’s entry into public space,” adds Mahapatra.

Sabita Sethi, who won the ward elections in Balianta block of the state’s Khurda district, had to pay a heavy price for her success. Although she was able to win over her conservative husband to be able to contest, she was forced to give her youngest daughter up for adoption after objections were raised on the number of children. She had three daughters.

According to Anuradha Mohanty of the Peoples Cultural Centre, an NGO working in Khurda, the district with one of the lowest child sex ratio in the state, “In 2001 Census, the child sex ratio was 926 girls for 1000 boys. This has now gone down to 910 girls. We think that the two-child norm has certainly played a role in its decline,” she states.

In Gujarat, a recent study on the two-child norm for elected representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions in the state found that it had become a tool to settle personal scores and eliminate political opponents. The 2011 study, conducted by Surat-based Centre for Social Studies, reveals that the law had no structured implementation mechanism and only worked through the complaint route. Action was only initiated if someone complained about the third child. This had fuelled local power politics at the village level.

According to the Coalition for Two Child Norm, women face negative consequences of implementation of the norm directly (as candidates) as well as indirectly (as spouse of those disqualified) in the form of desertion, forced abortions, neglect and death of female infant or female child being given up for adoption.

So, is this norm necessary to speed up the process of population stabilisation? There is no evidence to show that this policy has led to decline in fertility rate. On the contrary, there is proof of how it has violated women’s reproductive, human and political rights. There is data to also show that the availability of basic public services is significantly higher in female sarpanch (panchayat head) villages compared to the male sarpanch villages when the former have been in the job for three to three-and-a-half years. Authors of the study, ‘Can the Female Sarpanch Deliver?’ conducted in Sangli, Masharashtra, concluded that reservations have had a significant positive impact on the democratic participation of women. Surely, all this is enough evidence to convince governments to do away with the discriminating two child norm.

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