Women in the developing world feel trapped between the Pope and the profit, said Farida Akhter, a women’s activist from Bangladesh. “They admire the Pope’s recognition that development is not conditional on population but many disagree with his opposition to all contraception and all abortion. We are pleased with the World Bank’s desire to help women, but disagree that so much of their emphasis is on population control. “Women in the developing world belong to neither position,” Akhter said.
Dressed in an elegant dark blue sari and standing at only a little over four feet tall, Akhter seems hardly a threat to the international population control assault. Yet she, with the help of other dedicated women in Bangladesh whom she organized into an non-governmental organization called UBINIG, has both exposed the coercive use of Norplant on women in Bangladesh and helped Bangladesh’s rural poor to severely slow the spread of the “‘five needles” through the country.
Her efforts were discussed at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations World Food Summit, where the presence of recognized population control advocates and Norplant zealots gave the lie to the assertion that this summit was not really about population control.
“From 1992 all we have heard is that reducing human population is the answer to every problem,” Akhter said. “We have been told that too many people hurt the environment, too many people contribute to poverty, too many people limit access to housing. Really it’s all bunk, Overconsumption, lack of credit, lack of real economic initiatives are all part of a very complex problem. To claim it’s all population is simplistic.”
Population control generally, and Norplant in particular, stubbornly remained the subtext of the Summit’s final Plan of Action even as FAO officials have insisted that they are not.
Norplant itself came to the fore early in the Conference when Nils Daulaire, Chief Policy Advisor on Population, Health and Human Development for USAID and a member of the US delegation, was identified at a press conference as tied to coercive population control programs in Haiti and Bangladesh. Speaking from the podium, Daulaire denied the allegation, asserting that the charges, many of them brought by Ubinig, were “distorted,” but that “where they were true we have dealt with them.”
“That is simply not true,” Akhter said later. ‘“Let’s review [even one] of our charges. We charged in The Human Laboratory that there was no informed consent of Bangladeshi women in Norplant use. This is still the case.
“Women who cannot read are shown the term and told to use their thumb print at the bottom. Women who can read and write are not given enough time to read and understand many of the terms the forms use. Just because they sign the form does not mean they have given their consent to this,” Akhter said.
Ubinig also charged that the Norplant program in Bangladesh hurts women by refusing to remove the device when it made women sick, and that this has not changed. Also, she said, the Family Planning workers are still not being forthright with women about the damage the devices cause.
“The Bangladesh Family Planning Association are having so much trouble selling Norplant in the villages now that they have become very sneaky,” Akhter said.
“Now they bring in a film for everyone to see and offer women soap and the children biscuits. Then they are shown the film which makes life sound so good after Norplant then they try to get the women to take it.”
BFPA have even gone so far as to try to enlist mothers-in-law into the effort, telling the mothers-in-law that Norplant will improve relations between them and their daughters-in-law by reducing the (competing) numbers of children. “But the mother’s-in-law were too smart to do this,” Akhter said.
Recently, she says BFPA had become so frustrated with the effectiveness of Ubinig’s efforts that they had asked to meet with her to discuss their differences. Akhter attended the meeting but only after making it clear that the meeting was not to be misrepresented later.
Akhter has risen in prominence to become recognized as one of the more intelligent and credible voices about Norplant and other issues among the non-governmental organizations working to oppose coerced population control. And she is notable tor her willingness to attack the UN system itself when she feels she must.
“One of the problems which must be addressed is the proliferation of NGO’s which are really not NGO’s,” Akhter said, “but well-financed and well organized population control organizations passing themselves off as NGO’s.”
NGO’s must represent the grass roots to have any authenticity, she says, and too many of them now do not. “When we first began the NGO idea we wanted to create non-governmental organizations,” she said, “now all we have are non-governable organizations.”