Free Condoms for Internal Migrants in China, But Continued Neglect of Reproductive Rights


Internal migrants in China,
a group of over 150 million people, frequently face multiple vulnerabilities,
particularly regarding their reproductive health. However, the Chinese
government’s decision
last month marks a potential improvement in guaranteeing the reproductive
rights of migrants. The Government decided to distribute free contraceptives to
the migrant population, which was previously denied access to the free condoms
distribution system. 

In some respects, the Government’s motives are suspect. With the National
Population and Family Planning Commission estimating that 70 percent of the
migrant population is of childbearing age, fear of breaches of the one child
norm is at play. To the extent that male migrants are the primary targets of
this initiative, a further and valid driving force is the spread of HIV
transmissions among migrants, given the vulnerability of mobile groups. This stems
from the Ministry of Health’s fears that sex has overtaken intravenous drug use
(IDU) as the main cause of HIV/AIDS transmission in China. 

"Relations involving multiple sexual partners have increased as male
farmers flocked to cities, thus increasing the possibility of HIV
transmission," said Wu Zunyou,
director of the National Center for AIDS/STD Prevention and Control
. He believes
that migrant groups are sexually active, but unaware of how to protect
themselves. 

The inclusion of migrants in the free contraceptives program is one of several
government initiatives
since late 2008 designed to reduce HIV vulnerability
among migrant populations. However, insufficient numbers of people undertaking
HIV tests, underreporting of rates of HIV infection and general lack of
transparency about the issue, which I have discussed previously,
mean it is difficult to assess whether such programs have or will be
successful. 

In December 2008, the Government was involved
in the launch of a joint campaign
to reduce discrimination against HIV/AIDS and to encourage safe sex among male
migrant workers. In some areas, including bars in Beijing and construction sites with more than
500 workers, the Government has also set up automatic condom-vending machines.
In Dalian City,
in the northeast province
of Liaoning, the
Government also provided 3,000 migrants with free HIV tests in 2008. 

One of the gravest shortcomings, in terms
of reproductive rights, is the common case of public health initiatives and
reproductive health programming aimed migrant populations. In an effort to target HIV-prevention, insufficient
attention is given to other reproductive health vulnerabilities associated with
mobility. Migrant women, in particular, frequently lack access to sexual and
reproductive health services, whether because of unaffordable user fees or lack
of access to national health schemes. 

Several years ago, one Chinese writer
revealed the vulnerability of migrant women in China,
reporting that although China’s
Labor Law guarantees women workers maternity leave and protection for their
reproductive health. The large supply of workers places employers in a position
to refuse to pay maternity leave, or fire women who are pregnant. Zhang Ye also
reported the general and specific reproductive health harms resulting from
factory working conditions, specifically in the footwear and garment factories,
where workers face chemical fumes, unbearable heat and long hours of standing. 

This is not to suggest that migrant women
are completely being ignored. In April, Li
Bin, China’s
minister in charge of the National Population and Family Planning Commission,
reported to the United Nation’s Commission of Population and Development the intention
of the Government to issue regulations on reproductive and family planning
of migrants to protect their reproductive rights. Recently, there has
also been an increased focus on corporate
social responsibility
, targeting companies like Nike, Disney and Levi
Strauss. One project is focused on the role of companies to recognize the
harmful effect of neglecting women’s reproductive health. 

In reality, HIV vulnerability is one of many vulnerabilities internal
migrants in China
face, particularly with respect to lack of
redress for violations of labor rights
, including workplace hazards and
absence of pay. However, in the specific case of the reproductive rights of
migrant women, it seems that Government-funded programming, at present, is
insufficient at addressing the very particular set of vulnerabilities facing
this population, including mandatory health testing, denied pregnancy, forced
abortion and lack of access to healthcare. Though the Government of China’s efforts in terms of
free HIV testing are indeed commendable, in reality they are only one part of a
wider approach that is essential to guarantee the reproductive rights of the
very significant internal migrant population in terms of the reproductive
rights violations Chinese women migrants suffered in the past.

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