Walking through the streets of Danapur, my ears are filled with the voices of exuberant young girls. Contrary to the timid behaviour that much of society expects of women, these girls brim with confidence and self-esteem. They belong to the Prerna Residential Schools, an initiative by Nari Gunjan - an NGO that works to uplift women, especially those belonging to the Musahar community. Nari Gunjan was founded to empower these women and girls by providing them with both formal and informal education.
Unfortunately, once these girls reach a certain age, many are forced to leave school and get married. Irrespective of the level of education a girl attains, the decision to marry is rarely her own. Almost immediately after marriage, the pressure to start a family starts building. But marriage is a lot more than having children - it is meant to be a union of love, respect and equality. However, for too many women, this is not a reality.
It is paradoxical in our society that although the woman carries the child, she is often unable to make the choice about having one. The right to make that decision - to choose whether, when and how many children to have - should be the right of every woman, and is directly linked to family planning (use of contraceptives to space and time pregnancies and reach one's desired family size). Access to safe, voluntary family planning is an essential component of human's rights and is central to gender equality and women's empowerment.
India was the first country to introduce a national family planning programme in 1952. At the time, the programme was focused on population control and reduction of fertility rates. Over the past several decades, however, that approach has shifted. In recent years, the government has taken important steps to move towards a reproductive health and rights-based approach to family planning, with newer policies focused on expanding contraceptives access and choice.
It is extremely important to protect women's reproductive health and rights and that includes ensuring access to family planning and informed and voluntary choice. There are contraceptive methods available to suit different ages, needs and lifestyles. With the help of doctors, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and other health workers, women and men can learn about the various contraceptives available to them, as well as potential side effects and how to manage them.
The government has introduced numerous schemes to expand access to contraceptives and improve the quality and delivery of family planning services. In 2016, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launched "Mission Parivar Vikas" to accelerate access to high quality family planning choices. The initiative targets 145 high-fertility districts across seven states, including an overwhelming 36 of Bihar's 38 districts. Information and counselling are also available to help people better understand and use the contraceptives under the government programme. In addition, there are NGOs working at the community level on women's empowerment and reproductive health that provide support and guidance to women on a range of issues, from contraceptive access to sexual abuse.
In spite of these important steps, we still have a long way to go. In many households, the men of the family are the only source of income. In others, although women contribute to the family income, men often exercise control over spending and other important family decisions. The government's family planning programme will work effectively only when women have financial freedom. Women are more likely to reach their full potential when they are empowered with the information and tools they need to protect their health and plan their futures, and that includes financial independence. Empowering women is one of the greatest opportunities for prosperity, as no society can achieve its full potential when half of its population is disempowered. At Nari Gunjan, there is a focus not only on providing formal education, but also vocational training, to help women become financially independent.
In Bihar, social, cultural and religious pressures persist, and too many women are continuously denied the right to make their own decisions regarding their finances, health, bodies and families. These issues should be acknowledged and addressed by community and religious leaders, who have the influence and reach to educate their communities about the importance of women's empowerment and rights. Through their voices, these messages will be better understood and accepted by the people.
July 11 was World Population Day and this year's theme was "Family Planning: Empowering People, Developing Nations." In those six words, we are presented with a profound truth: when we give women access to family planning - information, choices and quality services - we empower them, their families and communities. Over time, countries that empower, educate and improve the health of their citizens set themselves up for economic growth, development and higher quality of life. This is an opportunity for us to reflect on past progress, as well as the work we have left to do, to empower women and make family planning available and accessible to all. With continuous efforts from the government, community leaders and other stakeholders, we can empower women and build a healthier Bihar.
• Sudha Varghese, also known as Sister Sudha, is a social worker and founder of Nari Gunjan, a non-profit organisation that aims to empower the marginalized Dalit women, particularly those from the Musahar community in Bihar.