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Family Planning Ads: Time To Change The Mood

Family planning programmes have always targeted women. It is time to reverse the strategy

Spreading the Message: A campaign to publicise birth control
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In 1952, India became the first country to launch a formal, government-backed programme aimed to stabilise population growth through the National Family Planning Programme (NFPP). It was meant to lower the country’s fertility rate, which would help support economic growth. Hum Do Hamare Do—two of us and two of ours—was the slogan of a 1952 public interest announcement by the NFPP. The target audience was married couples and the message was to discourage them from having more than two children.

The same year, a short documentary on family planning was produced by the National Education and Information Films Ltd, Bombay. It began with this message: “In India wherever you go, you find there are too many of us, herded like sheep. There is not enough space for all of us. Not enough food to satisfy us. Population is increasing every day which means there are five million mouths to feed every year.”

The script of the 10-minute film was written by K A Abbas, a prominent director of the Bombay film industry. While the film argued for “planned parenthood”, saying that it alone will ensure the happiness and prosperity of children, it laid the burden of family planning squarely on women. In the film, a couple is seen consulting with a female doctor at a clinic. The doctor then takes the woman inside her cabin for a “woman-to-woman talk” leaving the husband out of the conversation. This became emblematic for many such campaigns that were released in the following years.

Burden on the Women

Many experts say catchphrases like Hum Do Hamare Do tried to ensure that people would adhere to smaller and healthier families, but the burden of the family planning measures was always on women.

Anant Bhan, former president of the International Association of Bioethics, says that much has changed since the 1950s in the context of family planning advertisements and campaigns for good, but women continue to remain prime targets of the family planning advertisements and services. “A number of family planning services are available at health centres. Women visit health centres during pregnancy, but men don’t even accompany their wives,” he says. “It is in these centres that a woman is told that after her delivery she can opt for a tubectomy procedure. We need male involvement in family planning and more usage of condoms. That will open up a conversation,” says Bhan.

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A screengrab from Nasbandi (1978) a satire on forced sterilization

The family planning advertisements got a fillip, especially after the 1961 census. Population control figured prominently in the 3rd Five-Year Plan (1961-1966), which stated: “The objective of stabilising the growth of population over a reasonable period must therefore be at the very centre of planned development.”

In the 1960s, each station of All India Radio used to have a special family planning cell and a specific time slot allotted to family planning programmes every day. There were mobile vans for the exhibition of documentaries about family planning. Newspapers would also carry advertisements. Family planning hoardings were seen all over the country. However, the advertisement blitzkrieg didn’t help much as the infant mortality rate was high, which was forcing people to opt for larger families.

In 1967, the government established the Hindustan Latex Limited and started producing condoms. As part of this programme, oral pills and condoms were distributed for free. The distribution of condoms was also a component of the government’s “Small Family, Happy Family” campaign. When the emergency was imposed on June 25, 1975, the government changed the meaning of the family planning programme altogether. While the government continued with advertisements on All India Radio, street plays and posters to promote family planning, it also started a forced sterilization programme. With encouragement from World Bank funding, the government started a mass sterilization campaign in 1976, where about 6.2 million men underwent vasectomies in just a year; thousands also died due to botched operations after the villages were cordoned off and men were taken out for surgeries. A paper “India’s history of mass sterilization” published by the American Urological Association in May 2022, says, “Since 1976, the focus of sterilization in India has shifted to women. Some 4.5 million women undergo sterilization per year with half of the female population sterilized by the age of 35.”

“Unfortunately,” the paper says, “India’s history of government-funded population control is not unique; other countries have their own dark history of compulsory sterilization.”

Forced Sterilization

Sanjay Gandhi, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s younger son, played a critical role in mass sterilization campaigns, making compulsory sterilization part of a larger poverty reduction programme. “It was a grave human rights violation,” Bhan says. Such forcible sterilization drives reversed all gains of the family planning programme, he adds. “All healthcare initiatives are based on trust. After forced sterilization, people stopped trusting healthcare initiatives. They thought today they were taken for forced sterilization, and tomorrow, they might be asked to do something else.”

A study says that the Indian family planning programme promotes only female sterilisation as the exclusive means of contraception

In fact, I S Johar directed a Bollywood film called Nasbandi in 1978, a satirical take on the sterilization programme. But the film was banned soon after release due to the portrayal of the Indira Gandhi government and its policy of compulsory sterilization during the Emergency period. However, the film achieved cult popularity through home video and satellite television later. Songs like Kya Mil Gaya Sarkar Emergency laga ke from the movie still ring a bell.

Filmmaker and cinema academic, Pankaj Saxena, says that in the 1970s, it was an advertisement of the Nirodh condom that popularised the discourse around family planning. It is said that the condom was originally to be named as Kamaraj, but the proposed name was abandoned because the name of the Congress president at that time was K Kamaraj.

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“A lot many people knew about Nirodh due to the advertisements and campaigns, but they didn’t know what it is used for,” he says. For example, Saxena says, in Madhya Pradesh, people complained that Nirodh wasn’t doing its job, and when health workers inquired how they were using it, they came to know that some people were wearing it on their thumbs while having sex.

“Both Hum Do, Hamare Do and Nirodh had a huge role in family planning. Though Nirodh was very cheap, but they wouldn’t tell how it is to be used and that was creating confusion,” says Saxena, adding that campaigns in later years tried to address this problem, and they also reflected the popular perception about Nirodh. Kya aapke paas Nirodh hai advertisement of 1989 is a classic example, where actor Shekar Suman struggles to ask for Nirodh. He approaches the chemist only after he finds him alone in his shop and then tries to ask “aapke pass woh hai” till an older man comes in and asks for “Nirodh”, and Suman exclaims: “Mujhe bhi”. Later in the Moods advertisement, when a confident-looking young man asks a chemist “Moods please”, while another guy is struggling with “Can I have some, aaaa, you know, a pack of…” This was an attempt to instil confidence among people to buy condoms.

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Turnaround, by Chance

Condom advertisements became even more essential when the first case of HIV was detected among female sex workers in Chennai in 1986. The HIV virus quickly spread to millions even as India overtook South Africa with the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world in 2014. Bhan says after HIV fear, Nirodh was mostly thought to be used for protection from HIV, but it helped in family planning as well. “Because of HIV, you had some dialogue about condom usage and it brought in some change,” he adds.

Condom advertisement became especially directly after the launch of Kama Sutra condoms in 1991. They generated both positive and negative responses, but over the years, the advertisement helped in popularising condoms and increased their appeal. ”Earlier we people would hesitate to ask for condoms. Now people ask for condom brands,” says Saxena.

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After HIV rapidly spread across the nation, Nirodh was mostly thought to be used for protection from HIV, but it helped in family planning as well

The Kama Sutra brand was innovative and daring and in sync with India’s newly liberalised market economy. They were even criticised as obscene and sexist by some members of Parliament. Bhan says the difference between government campaigns and corporate advertisements is that the former wanted to achieve the objective of family planning—in essence, to sell an idea—while the latter wanted to sell its product. “While Kama Sutra generated controversy, which helped the brand, it also invariably helped the family planning programme,” he says.

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A S Kanal, who heads the Pune-based Vikshi Institute of Media Studies, says that government advertisements or other advertisements aimed at family planning measures have lost their appeal. “This is the era where machines are replacing skilled workers. It has to be drilled in the minds of people that if you go on producing in the world, how will you feed your children when half of the jobs are being taken over by machines? It is the duty of advertisers and those who design media campaigns around family planning to bring this aspect in their advertisements.”

Bhan complains that for over 70 years, family planning advertisements and campaigns have continued to be focused on women as women seem to be the only recipients of family planning services. A study titled “the trends of female sterilization in India” published last year by BMC Women’s Health, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal, says that the Indian family planning programme promotes only female sterilisation as the exclusive means of contraception.

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“What we are missing are advertisements and campaigns which convey that family planning services are available for men. The challenge is how to bring more male participation in family planning programmes,” says Bhan.

Naseer Ganai in Srinagar

(This appeared in the print as 'Change the Mood')

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