Activists decry linking maternity benefits to population control

New Delhi, Jan 26 (IANS) Civil society groups have expressed shock at a parliamentary panel's recommendation to restrict the nutritional support under government schemes to only two children per family and to disqualify mothers of more children from maternity benefits.

Debunking the need for coercive measures to promote population stabilisation, A.R. Nanda, former secretary, department of family welfare, said that India's population growth has already slowed down considerably and the figures from the 2011 Census show that the decadal growth at 17.64 percent is the lowest in the last 50 years.

Reviewing the National Food Security Bill, the parliamentary standing committee on food, consumer affairs and public distribution has recommended that maternity benefits under government schemes should be restricted to only the first two children.

The steps to link entitlements to population control or family size need to stop and emphasis should be laid on providing women with adequate nutritional supplements which should be extended to women from socially and economically weaker backgrounds, Nanda said on the sidelines of a function here on girl child.

Jashodhara Dasgupta from National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights (NAMHHR) said that according to National Family Health Survey III, nearly 60 per cent of the most vulnerable women of the age group of 15-49 years have more than two children.

"They will be disqualified from maternity benefits; these include the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, the poorest and those with no education," Dasgupta was quoted as saying in a release.

As such, disqualifying vulnerable women from maternity benefits just because they give birth to more than two children is a cruel denial of their reproductive and economic rights, she said.

Maternity benefits and support are most essential for the well being of poor women and for the future generation of our country, she said.

There is an urgent need to delink the supplementary nutritional programmes and maternity entitlements from the two-child norm, else the "inclusive agenda" of the government will be defeated, she added.

The activists strongly recommended that maternity benefits and nutritional support schemes should be made unconditional. There should be no restrictions in access to these public support programmes with regard to age or parity.

The government should ensure minimum support facilities at work, including creches, wage compensation, nursing breaks and adequate maternity leave for exclusive breast feeding, for poor women in the country, they said.

Abhijit Das, convenor of the National Coalition Against Two-Child Norm and Coercive Population Policies, New Delhi, expressed "serious concerns that such a disqualification would be gender-insensitive".

The recommendations have also been objected to by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

The parliamentary standing committee's other recommendations, which include diluting the existing commitments of the government to provide nutritional security to children, have also drawn criticism from the civil society as well as the NCPCR.

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