As we mark yet another International Women’s Day on March 8, there is a greater urgency today to uphold women’s achievements, recognize the challenges that they face, and focus on their rights, empowerment and gender equality. Women’s empowerment is women’s ability to access the constituents of development, in particular health, education, livelihood opportunities, rights, and political participation. Their lives must be free from violence, abuse and discrimination.
Women must be able to exercise their rights, especially the right to informed choice, voluntary access to reproductive health and family planning services and control over their fertility. Reproductive choice is one of the most fundamental human rights and by freeing women from an incessant cycle of pregnancy, breastfeeding and childcare, family planning is the giant step towards gender equality.
Today, sexual and reproductive health access still eludes many women and girls. Every year, 70,000 women die in India from causes related to childbirth and pregnancy. More than 20.5 percent women want, but lack access to, effective contraception. Girls continue to be forced to marry against their will in early age – a clear violation of their rights and a devastating form of violence. Accessibility, affordability, sustainability, quality, accountability, and availability of sexual and reproductive health information and services throughout the life cycle without discrimination continue to be major issues. There are enduring societal norms, perceptions and attitudes which inhibit the pace of improvement in the condition and position of Indian women in society and economy. These call for urgent individual as well as collective introspection. Real change will happen when norms and mores evolve. There should be an emphasis on changing mind sets and stereotypes so as to empower women to take decisions regarding their own health and increase spousal communication.
Empowering women will unleash the largest, untapped potential for sustainable development. This can be ensured by investing in family planning, which can be a game-changer in the lead up to women’s empowerment. The public health system, family planning programmes and communication strategies should be designed to encourage male engagement in family planning. We must close the gaps for women and girls, and address them within the framework of the development agenda. For only when women exercise their reproductive rights, will they be better able to enjoy other freedoms and opportunities—from education to employment to full participation.