What could a vasectomy and a gun possibly have in common (if one ignores the culturally specific double entendres it conjures up when delving on issues of manhood)? Not much in some parts of the world and yet the highest form of trade-off in certain parts of the world.
Owning property, weapons and women have for long been signs of success (not necessarily in that order) in various subcultures of the subcontinent. That is why even a war-ravaged country like Afghanistan, submerged under the pile of duplicated, second-hand weapons offloaded or manufactured along the border, has not quite escaped the temptations that the imagery poses, even as warlords flaunt their assortment of guns and women (mostly young children) in a vulgar display of wealth, affluence, social status and an associated political prestige all rolled in one. But then there is also the common perception — the clichéd image of the country — that contributes and feeds the belief and the Rambo-esque imagery of "Afghanistan's unending history of war and weapons." But what about a country like India?
In a traditional culture with a rigid division of duties where men earn and women nurture, female infertility is seen as a curse that women have to endure. With infertility for women comes ostracism and a life of loneliness, even as male infertility strangely finds its victims in women as well. Often women have had to carry the burden of their spouses' inability to help conceive and so complex are the images of manhood, virility and fertility that it manifests itself in a complete denial of a man's inability to be fertile. Concepts of manliness are so acutely woven in to the male psyche from a very early age that while men carry the pressures of that imagery women bear the consequences of it.
Besides, with the population growth rate in India having trebled post-independence, who would question the Indian man's fertility? And yet with food security becoming an increasing concern in this century the Indian government has found itself struggling to control the growth rate of almost 1.5 per cent a year by lowering the birth rate per couple from the current five.
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It is in this scenario that the success of the model of "guns-for-vasectomies" in one of the districts of the central state of Madhya Pradesh seems a particularly dangerous trend. Vasectomies as a mode for male sterilization were found unpopular in this dacoit-infested region, as men feared that a vasectomy would affect their sexual potency by making them weak — which was a tremendous sacrifice in a region where bandits brandishing guns have defined male perceptions of manhood, literally as the epitome of the alpha male. So the administration chose to compensate. Instead of going through the slower and more arduous tools of community outreach and trying to break myths, smash stereotypical representations and fracture fallacies they took a quicker method. While convincing men to give up on one symbol of their manhood they made up by providing them with another symbol of manhood – a gun for their fertility. Hence, the acquisition of a gun license has been made much simpler for those opting for the medical procedure.
The context is that Shivpuri – the district where this model is being practiced – appears to be a microcosm for most of India and the region's problems, all of which are related to poverty. Apart from the scarcity of basic amenities, even returns from the land are not enough to feed single families as larger families over the years have meant relentless division of the in to smaller plots of land. Like many regions of the country, the increase in birth rates has found a solution in higher levels of sex selection. Women continue to go through one pregnancy to the next even as medical services fail to keep pace with their needs. The giving and taking of dowry are accepted social practices and the male children are welcome even as girls are seen as an economic burden to be shifted on to the marital home as early as possible. And as a cruel joke guns seems to have become the answer to tackle the problems.
Guns have been a part of many social traditions in the country. Guns are used to celebrate functions like weddings (with more than random accidental deaths of even the groom or other revellers); guns are used to settle disputes, guns are used to protect the family honor (very often vested in the reputation of the female members of the household). And now guns are being used to control birth rates. A young school girl died in the state of Uttar Pradesh accidentally at the hands of her headmaster's loaded gun.
There already have been incidents recently, of children increasingly using guns to settle their own disputes having either watched their fathers use them or with the knowledge of the presence of a firearm at home. Another Australian girl was raped and killed by her stalker in the pilgrim town of Vrindavan recently. And even as the administration makes lofty claims of their power to cancel gun licenses as and when required, the truth is that the damage might well be done. The government has sent out a lethal cocktail of mixed messages that legitimizes the use of violence.
In choosing to meet targets rather than actually educating communities, the administration is hardening stereotypes of manliness which not only places women in even more vulnerable positions but also places the entire community in a volatile situation where they might end up looking down each others' barrels at the slightest provocation.