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Empowerment, Resistance, and the Birth Control Pill…

Pop art picture of a woman with red lipstick taking a pill. from: PWCD - birth control in third world countries


Written by: Abigail S. Trombley

EXCERPT FROM – Empowerment, Resistance, and the Birth Control Pill: A Feminist Analysis of Contraception in the Developing World

The advent of contraception is commonly understood as a benchmark in the development of the socio-economic well-being of women and their families. While the vast majority of literature on the use of contraception focuses on its frequently documented connection to socio-economic development. However, there are contrasting conclusions when delineating the relationship between contraception use and women’s autonomy in fertility decisions; some studies show that:

  • Increased education and economic independence are associated with the increased use of contraception.

Other studies counter this; they have shown that:

  • Even when women’s autonomy is increased via socio-economic development, men often remain in control of decisions regarding fertility due to pervasive traditional norms.

Therefore, studies on the connection between economic development and women’s autonomous choice to use contraception are far from conclusive; nevertheless, the presentation of contraception as a socio-economic tool of development holds a consistent presence in the discourse regarding contraception in the developing world. Alternatively, an analysis informed by a variety of feminist theories allows the use of contraception to be viewed as women’s assertion of autonomy over their reproduction, and therefore as an act of resistance in a patriarchal society.

This alternative view is essential for recognizing the potential of contraception to allow women to reclaim their agency and transform the societies they live in. Yet, this is not the way contraception has been presented in discourse. It is significant according to a Foucauldian concept used in this analysis, which reveals discourse to be a mechanism of power that possesses the ability to affect the subject who has objected to it.

Women’s decisions to limit their reproduction have been written about in regard to demographic, health, economic concerns, and consequences. However, a feminist analysis illuminates an alternative viewpoint that examines the resistant nature of a woman’s decision to control her fertility, the conditions that determine whether she has the ability to do so, and the implications for making this choice in societies where woman’s autonomy over their fertility is resistant to the patriarchal order.

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This examination of contraceptive use by women in the developing world utilizes postcolonial feminist theory as the starting point for analysis. Postcolonial feminist theory destabilizes traditional theories in which the colonized subject is absent or rendered inferior, shifting focus to the experience of the colonized to articulate and understand the subject’s lived experience.

Informed by postcolonial feminist theory, along with insights into other feminist theories which have enriched and evolved postcolonial feminist thought, I argue that discourse around contraceptive use in the developing world must construct women as active subjects and include a discussion of women’s individual ability to resist cultural norms when choosing to use contraception.

While contraception initially presents as an opportunity of liberation for women, I analyze discourse from organizations that advocate for women’s use of birth control in the developing world, as well as deliver contraceptive services themselves, in order to uncover the dominance of liberal, capitalist assumptions therein. Postcolonial feminist scholarship has exposed such assumption for being, at best, inapplicable, and at worst, more oppressive. I examine the implications of these assumptions within the context of contraception as an act of resistance by an active subject.

I argue that the discourse of economic development stems from a liberal feminist perspective that focuses on economic empowerment as a crucial element of gender equality. This narrow focus neglects broader aspects of a woman’s being. It privileges a western capitalist perspective that ties women’s value to capital production and accumulation, further binding them to the patriarchal capitalist system that has historically oppressed women.

Further, it perpetuates the binary between modern, “liberated,” western women who use contraception, and traditional, oppressed women for whom contraception is delivered as a gift from the western saviors in their mission to “improve” the developing world; achieving goals informed by progressive values.

The aim of this study is not to deny that contraception is a fundamental human right, as well as an important element of women’s reproductive and maternal health. Rather, the aim is to uncover a problematic binary in which contraception is marshaled as a defining marker between the “first world” and “third world” woman. Discourse around contraception in the developing world informed by a feminist analysis must present women as active subjects, whose choice to control her reproduction in a world in which fertility choices are dominated by men is an act of resistance…

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