A Snapshot of Women's Reproductive Health in India

Jessica Zucker, Editor, Global Reproductive Health Forum Newsletter

[Jessica Zucker has kindly shared this May 2001 issue of the Global Reproductive Health Forum Newsletter with readers of the Postcolonial Web. She may be contacted at jzucker@hsph.harvard.edu.]

Fifty years after the adoption of the Constitution, people are curious about the extent to which the Constitutional commitment to equality and freedom for women has been implemented. India has been one of the foremost leaders in ratifying the UN Conventions and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action. In the last few years, as an outcome of affirmative policies and programs, women's position in Indian society has advanced. That said, insidious gender-based gaps persist within Indian culture. The status of women falls short of standards put forth by the Indian government and its Constitution. India's diversity is evident especially when examining the variation in health statistics across the country. For instance, the average life expectancy for women in Kerala is reported to be 75 years of age as compared to 57 in Madhya Pradesh. Life expectancy is determined by multiple factors- some of which include: level of income, access to education (literacy) and health care, urban vs. rural environment, nutritional status, prevalence of disease, issues of human rights, relational dynamics, workplace issues, gender-based violence, and decision-making abilities.

Some indicators of women's status include:

Sex Selection

Outlawed in 1994, sex-determination tests the use of ultrasound technology to determine if pregnant women are carrying a male or female fetus- continue to be carried out by itinerant doctors using compact machines, who travel from clinic to clinic. Over the last decade, the fall in the ratio of girls to boys has been greatest in the richest states of the north and west. In the Punjab the ratio is 793 girls to 1000 boys, down from 875. In Gujurat, the figure is now 878 girls to 1000 boys, compared to 928 girls ten years ago. Women pay about 500 rupees (US$11) for ultrasound tests and 2000 rupees (US$44) for an abortion. Sons are desired to carry on the family name, inherit ancestral property, care for parents in old age and light their father's funeral pyres. Various groups campaign against sex-selective abortions but the 1994 law is weak, with prosecutions for those undergoing sex-determination tests, unlikely. In some areas within India ultrasound tests are openly advertised. (IPPF: April 2001)

Sex ratio map 2001: http://www.censusindia.net/maps/sexratio.html

Reproductive Health and Rights

Only a very limited number of Indian women have the opportunity to choose whether or when to have a child. Women, particularly women in rural areas, do not have access to safe and self-controlled methods of contraception. The public health system emphasizes permanent methods like sterilization, or long-term methods like IUD's that do not need follow-up and are thus felt to be more ‘fool-proof’ than other spacing methods. In fact, sterilization accounts for more than 75% of total contraception, with female sterilization accounting for almost 95% of all sterilizations. (Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in India, 2001)


The 2001 Indian Census provisional results demonstrate the continued discrepancy between male and female literacy rates. For example, in Uttar Pradesh 70.23% of men are said to be literate in contrast to only 42.98% of women. [http://www.censusindia.net/results/provindia3.html]

Gender-based Violence

There is increasing evidence to show that all women, regardless of age, class, caste, and community are vulnerable to domestic violence -- marriage, a joint family, education, economic security and social status do not provide any real protection. According to Visaria (2000), younger, lower caste, and less educated women in India are at greater risk of experiencing domestic violence. (Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in India, 2001)

Related Resources

Global Reproductive Health Forum www.hsph.harvard.edu/

For feedback or to be added to Global Reproductive Health Forum mailing list, contact: jzucker@hsph.harvard.edu

Postcolonial Web Indian Subcontinent India OV Gender OV