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Groundbreaking Contraceptive Case Filed in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh

On November 14, the second case to be developed under the Center for Reproductive Rights’ South Asia Reproductive Justice and Accountability Initiative (SARJAI) was filed in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh. The Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), the Center’s partner in India, filed this public interest case which calls on the government to protect women’s reproductive health by providing access to a full range of contraceptive methods, information, and services, and consequently end the violations of women’s fundamental and human rights arising from the lack of access.

About the Petition

Leading women’s rights activist Dr. Jagmati Sangwan, through her women’s empowerment non-governmental organization, Himmat Mahila Samooh, is the petitioner in this case. Government studies show that despite numerous policy commitments to improve contraceptive access, the unmet need for contraceptives in Haryana in fact has shown an increase since 2004. Without access to contraceptives, women face unplanned pregnancies that carry higher risks of maternal death and injury: lead to unsafe abortions; cause mental anguish; and compromise their ability to make crucial decisions about their health and lives. These risks are particularly acute for women in Haryana, where government studies show that maternal mortality has risen in the past decade.

The petition alleges that women face serious barriers to accessing contraceptive information and services in Haryana due to flawed state policies and the failure of the state government to implement national-level policy guarantees. Citing government reports, findings by a Jindal Global Law School study on contraceptive access in Haryana last year, and HRLN’s own fact-finding work, the petition raises the following specific barriers to access to contraceptive information and services that must be addressed by the Haryana government:

  • Failure to ensure that women have access to the full range of contraceptive methods, proper information, and quality services;

Haryana’s state-level policies relating to contraceptives focus disproportionately on permanent methods, rather than aiming to provide women with the information they need to choose a contraceptive method that suits their reproductive needs. This has resulted in barriers to access for women who may need short-term contraceptives to time and space their pregnancies. Studies cited show that women in Haryana lack knowledge about the full range of contraceptive methods, including condoms, intrauterine devices, and oral contraceptive pills. Women report that contraceptives provided by the government are of poor quality and unreliable.

  • Inadequate support for health volunteers responsible for contraceptive counselling;

In order to combat high rates of maternal and infant mortality, the Indian government established a corps of female village-level health volunteers who are responsible for ensuring women’s access to contraceptive information and services. However, Haryana continues to fall far short of its commitment to appoint and train the 17,000 volunteers necessary to effectively implement this program. Further, there are no volunteers focused on reaching out to men concerning contraceptive use, which is a contributing factor leading to women bearing a disproportionate burden in preventing unintended pregnancies.   

  • Social barriers, including stigma.

Substantial stigma surrounds contraceptive use, which further impedes women in their ability to information and services. Studies show that women who discuss contraception may face judgment or be labeled promiscuous, yet the government has not taken steps to address this stigma.

The failure of the Haryana government to address these barriers violates women’s rights as protected under the Indian constitution as well as under human rights law, and detracts from commitments made in national policies. The petition argues that the failure to ensure adequate reproductive health services constitutes discrimination and violates the guarantee of nondiscrimination and equal protection in the constitution. Further, by placing women’s health at risk, the Haryana government is in violation of its obligation to protect women’s fundamental right to life, which is interpreted to include the right to health. India’s National Population Policy also upholds women’s right to the full range of contraceptive methods and commits to a target-free approach to family planning.  Haryana’s policies violate this commitment by setting targets for female sterilization and actively promoting this method over others. The failure to ensure women’s access to contraceptive information and services is a violation of human rights law, which both the central Indian government as well as the Haryana government are legally obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill.

Remedies Sought:

The remedies sought by the petitioners include the following actions on the part of the Haryana government:

  • make immediately available the full range of contraceptive methods, and all related information and counselling at all health facilities;
  • employ a male health worker at every primary health clinic to ensure male participation and education on contraception;
  • monitor the quality of contraception through randomized tests, and the establishment of an independent committee of medical officers, community members, and social activists; and
  • develop a comprehensive plan for addressing social and cultural barriers to accessing contraception, including monthly information campaigns.

The Center provided technical support on the petition through SARJAI, which launched in 2012 and seeks to build a robust body of law that will secure safe and accessible reproductive health care for women in South Asia; ensure that governments in the region adopt and fully implement appropriate reproductive health laws and policies; and protect women’s access to vital reproductive health care.