The Two-Child Norm: More Anti-Autonomy than Antidote

Post Date: Friday, March 16, 2018

two child norm

A 1980s Indian Stamp stating 'a small family is a happy family'


Zahra Andalucia Wynne – Since 1951, India has seen its population almost quadruple from 360 million to 1.2 billion people, making it the second most populated nation in the world, after China.  Despite this, the fertility rate of Indian women has actually decreased by more than half over the last 40 years – falling from from 4.97 children born to a woman in her lifetime during 1975-80 to 2.3 for the current period of 2015-20. However, due to the phenomenom of 'demographic momentum' –  a tendency for growing populations to continue growing after a fertility decline because of their young age distribution – it will take until at least 2050 for India's population growth to stabilise.  Deemed an 'explosion', the substantial growth in population is used as a scapegoat and a largely tepid excuse for almost every problem in India – especially issues surrounding poverty and poor public health facilities.

Do punitive incentives relating to the number of children one can have work? The answer is no, not necessarily. However, education and development certainly can curb population growth rates. In China – a country that has a strict one-child policy – the total fertility rate dropped from 2.8 in 1979 to 2.0 in 1991 – an outcome that relied heavily on coercion and human rights abuses. Contrast this with the Southern state of Kerala, who saw their total fertility rate drop from 3.0 in 1979 to 1.8 in 1991, relying solely on improving education and development. It is no coincidence that Kerala is the most literate and highly educated state in India. 

HRNL's work in the field of reproductive rights always prioritises a woman's right to bodily autonomy and integrity over coercive population control tactics. Considering this, it is crucial to move away from unethical and incentive-driven practices, such as coerced sterilisation and the two-child norm, and firmly promote the avaliability of a wide range of contraceptives along with contraceptive counselling for all who need it. It does not make sense to push the agenda of population control and at the same time fail to meet the 21.3% national need for contraceptives, and push for state bans on sex education in schools and condom advertisements. This article will address the downfalls of the unnecessary, unethical, and coercive two-child norm, and propose viable alternatives.

The two-child norm is seen as an antidote to India's 'population explosion'. Based on a largely miscontrued assumption that poor people living in rural areas and slums have more children, which is ironic given that these are the populations continually denied access to quality, affordable family planning services, the government formulated an idea based on China's highly controversial one-child policy: a two-child norm. This is a policy that would impose punitive disincentives on those who have more than two childen. This method targets those intending to run in panchayat (local government) elections by disqualifying potential candidates who have more than two children. The hope is that citizens will look at their local government figures as role models, and in turn limit the amount of children they have.

Some Indian states have gone even further to push the two-child agenda, by denying the third child access to public health facilities and education in government schools, confiscating ration cards, and cutting off pregnant women's access to a range of maternity benefits and schemes once they are pregnant with their third child. These measures obviously disproportionately affect poor people, with poor women in particular being disadvantaged. To date, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Bihar have two-child policies in place, ranging in their degrees of punitive outcomes when breached. As of September 2017, Assam became the eighth state to effect a two-child policy, with possibly the most punitive measures yet – barring anyone with more than two children from running for any kind of elections, holding a government job, or being eligible for government schemes and entitlements, such as nutritional entitlements for pregnant women who are below the poverty line. In October 2017, Jharkhand also announced its intention to follow the two-child norm with regard to eligibility in elections. All of the aforementioned states have high levels of impoverished communities from scheduled castes and tribes, and have bad records with regards to female literacy and school drop-out rates.

The two-child norm robs poor people of their bodily autonomy and integrity by punishing them for having more than two children. These parents are cut off from crucial schemes and entitlements that help to alleviate the circumstances of the most deprived people in India. This compounds the problems faced by those poor and uneducated communities who often have very little access to contraceptive information and services – the unmet need for contraception in rural areas is 4.6% higher than it is in urban areas. In states such as Meghalaya, where the unmet need is a shocking 55.5%, one can see a correlation with only 33.6% of women who have had 10 or more years of schooling. The two-child norm also disproportionately affects poor women. These policies may lead to unsafe and safe selective abortions. Poor women may be spurned on by the penalties imposed by having a third child, to have unsafe abortions or have sex selective abortions, so as to avoid having their entitlements cut off and to ensure that they have a boy before they have two children, as boys are still highly favoured in Indian culture and society, despite moves to curb sex selection. 

The two-child norm contradicts India's commitment to rights-based family planning and fails the self- stated goal of moving away from target-driven, incentive-based population control tactics, as expressed at the Cairo Conference in 1994 and codified in the National Population Policy 2000. This policy specifically identified as its overriding objective the improvement in the quality of lives, and made reference to the need to address unmet needs for contraception. The policy does not mention targets, disincentives, or policies relating to the number of children one can have. This move towards rights-based family planning is something to be celebrated, especially when looking back on past dystopian, barbaric family planning programme that saw poor women rounded up and sterilised en masse without consent, without anaesthesia, using rusty equipment – there were cases in which bicycle pumps used when proper equipment was not available. This typically featured hundreds of women lying on unsanitised tables next to each other in abandoned schools, being sterilised one-by-one within an hour, and then thrown on the dirty floor to recover, bleeding and in pain. The disturbing documentary ‘Something Like a War’ (1991), portrays the manner in which population control tactics display a flagrant disregard for human rights, especially the rights of women. India has since distanced itself from such policies and practices.

Nevertheless, a Supreme Court blunder has had extremely harmful effects on the poor and marginalised communities of several states of India. When a two-child norm approach was adopted in Haryana, barring those with more than two children from running in Panchayat elections, those who were disqualified filed a petition against the State of Haryana, known as Javed vs. State of Haryana (2003). The parties before the court failed to explain and assess the complexities of population, family planning, reproductive rights, and bodily autonomy in a nuanced manner, leading to a judgment that relied heavily on obsolete, disproven, obscure and controversial statements regarding notions of population 'explosions.' It quoted research dating back to the 1960s that labelled population growth as 'more dangerous than a Hydrogen bomb', failed to note India's sharp decrease in population growth rate from 1991 – 2001, briefly mentioned  the disadvantages that the two-child norm would impose on women and poor people in general, and featured a glaring absence of any Indian population experts, who were unanimous in their view that the impact of the two-child norm on women and the poor would be 'immediate and severe.' The resulting judgment was misleading and misunderstood and led to several states taking on the two-child norm and disqualifying candidates from running in local elections. Research conducted in Odisha, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh demonstrates that this directly led to the desertion of wives by aspiring local politicians, the seeking of unsafe abortions, giving up children for adoption, and the initiation of new marriages by male elected members to escape punitive measures. 

The two-child norm is not an 'antidote' to India's high population – rather, it is a coercive, oppressive, discriminatory and ill- conceived maneuver that targets poor people and women, doing little to address pressing issues such as the unmet need for contraception and unsafe abortions resulting from unintended pregnancies. Despite stereotypes and misconceptions, many impoverished people do not want to have large families, but they are prevented from being able to space their pregnancies by being denied access to affordable, confidential, and dignified contraceptive options. In addition to this, contraceptive methods such as condoms and even oral contraceptive pills are still stigmatised. They are associated with false notions of promiscuity. India's conservative attitudes regarding sex, the family, and relationships, results in many people being ashamed or unwilling to discuss contraceptive options, including healthcare professionals. The answer to ensuring dignity, health, and autonomy to all the people of India – not just those who can afford and are able to access private healthcare – is a rights-based, women friendly approach to reproductive health. The two-child norm is the opposite of this. 

If you would like to know more about HRLN's work to counter coercive population control tactics, you can see our work on contraception, sterilisation, quality of care, safe abortion, and adolescent sexual health and rights. We are constantly using research, activism, and consistent public interest litigation to hold  all government departments accountable when family planning services are denied and when population control tactics surface.