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Spotlight on India Sterilization “Camps”

A recent Wall Street Journal article takes a look at some of the big-picture issues around the recent tragedy in Bilaspur, India, where 13 women died and dozens of others seriously fell ill while undergoing coerced sterilization at one of the country’s government-sponsored sterilization “camps.”

Although investigators have now zeroed in on tainted antibiotics as a possible cause for the mass sickening, the horrendous event brings to light questions about why female sterilization remains a cornerstone of Indian family planning in the first place.

“We only know the world of sterilization,” said the mother of 26-year-old Janaki Suryavanshi, one of the women who died following the procedure. According to a recent government survey, 34% of households nationwide said female sterilization was their current method of family planning.

Suryavanshi, who was a mother of three, had been told that surgical sterilization was her only option when she asked health workers in her community about birth control. According to the Wall Street Journal, many of the women sterilized in Bilaspur said they had never used a condom, birth-control pills, or an IUD.

In an effort to address overpopulation, India’s government offers money to women and health workers who take part in the surgeries. The women who were sterilized at the camp in Bilaspur earlier this month were each paid the equivalent of approximately $22 to have the procedure.

However, a number of women in the region said that the primary reason they agreed to be sterilized was the lack of birth control alternatives.

Around 4.5 million women were sterilized in India last year.

In the aftermath of Bilaspur, activists hoped that the Indian government would be prompted to more closely examine the safety and quality of health care, the nation’s health priorities, and the country’s overall accountability towards people's lives and human rights.

An investigation of the camp after the incident found that the facility was shockingly out of date, with broken windows, cobweb-laden equipment, and floors covered in animal feces.

Unfortunately, on November 18, the Indian daily newspaper Dainik Bhaskar reported another mass sterilization at a camp in a neighboring state.

One hundred thirty-two women were hastily operated on over a period of just five hours in the middle of the night, despite express government guidelines that instruct surgical teams to perform no more than 50 procedures a day. It was also reported that the camp did not have basic essentials such as the stretchers to carry women out of the operation room.

While no deaths or mishaps have been reported following the most recent incident, the continued precarious conditions to which woman are routinely exposed to as a result of the lack of birth control choices points to significant deficits in the Indian government’s accountability towards women's lives and reproductive health rights.