Family Planning is Still Taboo Among Nomadic Communities in Kashmir
Gulshana Bano and women from her community have no say over child-bearing.

Gulshana Bano does not remember her exact age when she got married – probably aged 16 or 17, she recalls.

Now 27 years old and 10 years into her marriage, a frail and petite Bano has four children aged between the ages of four and nine with gaps of less than two years between each of them.

She is part of a tribal group known as the Gujjar-Bakerwals in the Indian-administered Kashmiri Ganderbal district who migrate by foot to warmer places twice a year.

She is also one of the hundreds of women who have no say over her reproductive rights, including family planning and are made to feel like  “child-making machines”.

Bano’s husband believes contraceptives are taboo as children come from God, while her elders believe that family planning interferes with nature.

For Bano and the women in her village, getting timely family planning is an uphill battle due to the stigma attached to the service. Most of them give birth to four to seven children, sometimes even more.

“In our community, it’s the men who take all the decisions including the right to give birth,” Bano says.

Married to a labourer who is against the use of contraceptives, she is likely to have even more children although the family is already struggling to survive on her husband’s meagre daily wage.

“I had to go to a main tertiary care hospital in Srinagar 60km away for my last delivery. The hospital nearby doesn’t have the necessary facilities and in many cases, they refer us to the city hospital,” says Bano.

“My last delivery was through a caesarean and I know that having more kids will affect my health, but I can’t do anything,” she says, adding that the women in her community do not even think about family planning.

Birth control is taboo and ‘God decides when children are conceived’

Birth control is taboo in Gujjar and Bakerwa communities and men believe God decides when children are conceived.

Talking about birth control is taboo. Women have little knowledge about contraception and no access to reproductive rights. As a result, they are forced to have a series of unplanned pregnancies.

“My husband says that the provider of children is God and we cannot stop it, so I don’t even discuss it further,” she says.

India’s National Health Policy 2017  made it mandatory for states to provide contraceptives at various levels of the health system. But these schemes are hardly accessed by the Gujjar-Bakerwal women, the third-largest ethnic group in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and constitute more than 20%of the region’s population.

A survey conducted by Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that works to promote the rights of tribal communities, revealed that more than 71% of the nomads were unaware of the schemes of the state and central government.

The foundation’s research found that tribal women are not exposed to education, don’t have access to modern facilities, and bear the “burden from unsafe sex which includes both infections and the complications of unwanted pregnancy,” according to the research. 

In Bano’s case, her husband has made it clear that he wants more children “so that they can take care of the cattle”. 

“We are told to have babies as long as we can,” she says.

The family lives in  a small two-roomed house built of stone and mud and it’s often a struggle to feed the six mouths in the household as her husband often struggles to find work.

“My husband earns a meagre amount as he is a day labourer. The lockdown months have been very tough as there were days and weeks where he couldn’t go to work. The amount he earns is not enough to feed the family,’ Bano says.

‘My husband will never agree to family planning’ 

Nagina Begum’s husband will never agree to birth control. She had three daughters in five years.

In the same village, Bano’s neighbour, Nagina Begum, 26, was married at the age of 16. She gave birth to three daughters in five years and says that her husband wants boys as well.

“Here in this village, we have no one to educate us of any methods of birth control. Even if I want it, my husband will never agree. I have three girls and he wants boys as well. We do not have the right to choose to give birth. Even our elders tell us not to come in the way of nature,” Begum says.

Begum and Bano face the same predicament when it comes to discussing contraceptives.

“First, I cannot talk to my husband about family planning or using any methods of birth control. Even if I tell him, he won’t agree. There is an amount of shame associated if we even mention using contraceptives. He wants more children and I cannot oppose him,” Begum says. “In our community, women are hardly educated and we only feel like child-making machines.”

The women do all the household work and even work in the fields.

In 2005,  under the National Rural Health Mission, the Indian government launched the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) mission which empowered women’s health activists from the local communities  to promote awareness on health and its social determinants and to mobilise communities to support local health planning.

ASHA counsels women on “birth preparedness, the importance of safe delivery, breastfeeding and complementary feeding, immunization, contraception and prevention of common infections including reproductive tract infections and sexually transmitted infections and care of the young child.”

Responsibilities include educating couples about safe spacing (waiting for at least two years before planning another child) and family planning. 

“We have an ASHA worker in the village, but we were never counselled about any schemes by the government. The only time she comes is when a woman is pregnant. When I was pregnant and during different pregnancies, there was no one to counsel me about spacing between the children or family planning,” Nagina says. “These schemes don’t reach the poor.”

‘Keeping more children is a way to keep a human resource’

Javaid Rahi, the General Secretary of Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, says that there are many factors responsible for women’s  lack of access of their reproductive rights.

“In tribal societies, having more children is a way to have human resources because they have animals like cows and buffaloes and they can’t afford a caretaker. So they use the human resource at their home. They want more children as they serve as human resources for them. For them, having more children is not a stigma. It is a strength for them, Rahi says.

The women of the tribal communities rarely have any say in household matters.

“A husband wants more than three or four children and if a woman can give birth to only two children, her husband marries again to produce more kids. They prefer to have more and more children as they also serve later to do different kinds of tasks at home and outside,” Rahi says.

“The marriage ceremony is very simple with little money needed. Even divorce is very easy,” Rahi adds.

The tribal community also marry off their children at a young age. Years back,  marriages used to take place when the girl was eight or nine years old, but now it has gone to 15 or 16, Rahi says.

Family planning among the tribal communities  is out of the question.

“The government brought in some schemes regarding family planning, but it is not looked at in a good way in the tribal people and it is even out of question. They feel it’s anti-faith and against God’s wishes,” says Rahi.

Image Credits: Raihana Maqbool.

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