In Madhya Pradesh recently, a woman sarpanch (village head) and her husband, a member of the panchayat (village council), gave up their third child -- a daughter -- for adoption because having more than two children would disqualify them from their posts.
In another case, a man denied he was the father and the matter went so far as to a DNA test being proposed to prove the paternity of the baby. There are instances of young women in panchayats trying to conceal their newborn baby and not feeding it to avoid disqualification. Increasing pre-natal sex selection, female feticide, neglect of female babies and induced abortions are other corollaries -- in short, all the fears voiced by the women's movement in 1994 when the trend to incorporate the two-child norm into Panchayati Raj first began (children born within a year of the law being enacted are exempted).
Ironically, a new study shows that the two-child norm policy has not succeeded in changing attitudes towards family size -- nor the patriarchal hold over reproductive choices. An overwhelming majority of men and women interviewed said they would not have contested the election if they had
known of the law. Their reproductive choices were determined by their families when it came to size and sex composition (at least one son, preferably two).
The study, covering five of the six states where the two-child norm is currently in force, reveals the extent to which the policy adversely affects women's autonomy, their position in the family, their reproductive rights and their participation in politics and community decision-making structures. In addition, it is often used to settle personal or political scores.
The state governments have linked the two-child norm to panchayat laws: persons with more than two living children are debarred from contesting panchayat elections or continuing in office. The fact that the minimum age limit for contesting panchayat elections was lowered from 26 to 21 years
has brought younger men and women in the reproductive age group into the arena, thus sharpening the issues at stake.
Effectively, what this means is that the government is giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment made it mandatory to have 33 per cent women as panchayat heads and as members of the panchayats. It also mandated quotas for weaker sections and tribals in direct proportion to their numbers in the area. The objective was to create space for women and economically and socially marginalized sections to participate in the political process.
What the two-child norm does is to neutralize this intent. Most young women would balk at defying marital, familial and social expectations for the shark-infested pool of panchayat politics. Further, men are now asking their mothers or older women in the family to contest for reserved seats so
as to circumvent the policy. This also results in younger women being kept out of the political process.
In fact, the two-child policy is against the National Population Policy; and the Union Health Ministry has been trying to convince state governments not to favor incentives or disincentives for restricting family size. But this does not seem to have made any impact.
The Rajasthan government recently announced that from June this year, government jobs would not be given to persons with more than two children and those already in service would be denied promotion for five years if they have a third child. The governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi and
Uttar Pradesh have seriously considered introducing the two-child norm but have backtracked in the face of vehement opposition from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and women's groups.
The study, conducted by Mahila Chetna Manch (a Bhopal-based NGO), found that the greatest impact of the two-child norm was at the panchayat level where the representatives are poorer, less educated -- often illiterate -- and where there is a larger number of first-time entrants from among women and weaker sections. Information dissemination and knowledge of law are poor at this level. Those who are younger and in the reproductive age-group are mainly affected and a larger number of such people belonged to the weaker sections. Women -- whether as wives or as elected representatives -- face the consequences.
In Haryana, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa (which introduced the two-child norm in 1994) and Madhya Pradesh (since 2000) -- since Himachal Pradesh began implementing this policy only last year, this state was not covered -- men use several mechanisms to avoid disqualification. Abortion,
denying the birth, disputing the age or parentage of the additional child, showing adoption, wrong birth certificates, deserting or sending away the pregnant wife, divorce, alleging infidelity. If pre-natal sex selection tests show a female fetus, it is aborted; but male fetuses are retained even if it means disqualification.
Nirmala Buch, President of Mahila Chetna Manch, fears that these practices are certain to increase when knowledge of the law increases and people are keen to access political power but are unwilling (or unable) to change aspirations on family size or sex composition.
There are many issues at stake here, not least those of equity and social justice. Women suffer the consequences of this policy even though they have no autonomy when it comes to family size or sex composition. Few have the power to make choices regarding contraception; access to contraceptive
methods and services is another matter altogether. Those at the bottom of the pyramid -- women and poor and weaker sections -- are affected most of all though these are the very sections that Panchayati Raj hoped to bring into the loop. This policy will discourage women, already living under the shadow of patriarchal attitudes, from contesting elections; and men are likely to use this opportunity to discourage them.
Much has been written about 'rubber-stamp' women sarpanchs and women panchayat members who are mere puppets. Yes, there are some, just as there are some male rubber-stamp panchayat heads and members. But the decade since the Panchayati Raj amendment has thrown up some remarkable women leaders. What the two-child norm does is to discourage women with independent minds, courage and ambition from entering the political process. What it does to the male-female sex ratio is another story altogether.