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‘Pro-Life’ And ‘Pro-Choice’ Just Doesn’t Cut It When Talking Abortion In India

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The debate surrounding abortion has been a long and complex one. In the West, the right to abortion has been opposed by ‘pro-life’ groups – those who believe that abortion is the “murdering of a child” and is hence unethical – or by orthodox Christian denominations, who believe that a child is a gift from God and hence “should be protected from the moment of its conception” (they also think that sex for pleasure is immoral, and ban contraception). The historic Roe v Wade judgement legalized abortion in America in 1973, but in India, the situation is entirely different. In fact, Abortion  has been legal in India (albeit with certain caveats) much before the West.

The law that permits abortion in India (the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971) has genuinely helped a lot of women, but it has also had repercussions that are far more disturbing. One of the reasons that this act cites for allowing abortion was that of family planning and population control; but while that is a legitimate concern, many regressive families use this as an excuse for female foeticide instead.

Due to deep-seated patriarchal discrimination, there is a cultural preference for male children over female children, and this horrifying preference manifests itself through cases of female foeticide – when women are forced to undergo an abortion because they are carrying a girl child.

The Disturbing Reality of Sex Determination and Female Foeticide

What facilitates the frequency of these forced abortions are medical practices that involve sex determination of a foetus while it’s still in the womb. Though a series of government legislations have banned such pre-natal sex determinations of foetuses in various states across India, these practices still continue to be prevalent. According to the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003, ultrasound clinics, genetic counselling centres and other medical facilities are prohibited from conducting pre-natal diagnostic checks except for detecting chromosomal abnormalities or genetic diseases, but from 2003 to 2014, only 206 doctors conducting these illegal tests had been convicted by the state, while others continue to go scot-free. Especially in states like Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab (which have recorded the highest number of cases of sex determination and foeticide),  young women in both rural and urban settings are constantly being forced to abort their babies.  

In various rural spaces, wives (who are often very young) are treated simply as vessels for reproduction, and made to live in abject conditions with no property or inheritance rights. And when these women are forced into aborting their female foetuses, they don’t have the means to protest. But urban spaces aren’t immune from these practices too. Even in the most affluent and literate of families, such prejudices exist and female foeticide occurs because of the desire for male heirs.

In a society that in many cases is riddled with regressive beliefs and practices such as the give-and-take of dowry, of child marriage, way too many families see the girl child as a liability..There’s also a moral discontentment associated with having girls because they are still seen as the weaker sex, and their bodies seen as something forbidden and sinful. Hence, these families choose to end the lives of their children in the womb itself – and in multiple cases, the mother’s full consent is absent. she is either duped into the abortion or emotionally and physically manipulated into it. As a result, the sex-ratio in India’s population (which is currently 943 women per 1000 men) continues to remain worryingly unequal. A 2011 study by British medical journal Lancet found that up to 12 million Indian female foetuses had been aborted in the previous three decades.

In 2014, the United Nations found that the dwindling number of Indian girl children had reached “emergency proportions” and was in fact, contributing to crimes against women – such as more moral policing, sexual violence and other forms of discrimination. Statistically, the lesser the number of girl children, the more prone they were to violence and repression

What’s The Government Doing?

In January 2015, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (in collaboration with the HRD Ministry and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launched the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign which addressed a number of issues faced by the girl child in the country, including that of female foeticide. The programme has targeted 100-odd districts and areas where cases of gender discrimination have been statistically the highest and have attempted to spread awareness about the evils of foeticide and forced abortions. One of the methods employed in the programme was influencing the matriarchal heads of family (who, ironically enough, usually decide whether or not the baby lives), and that has surprisingly lead to important results. Government reports show that in these 100 districts the number of female children in both families and state-run orphanages have gone up by hundreds. But the fact remains that these are only 100 districts, and many places still remain unmonitored and continue to perpetuate violence against both female foetuses and girl children.

Other than that, individual lawsuits continue to be filed against doctors and clinics who carry out these practices, and these have yielded mixed results – some being successfully heard, and some still in limbo.

Can The Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life Argument Be Applied In This Context?

The Bombay High Court in September 2016 came out with a progressive judgement that, in amendment to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, upheld the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy if it was unwanted. But the same law, when applied to practices of female foeticide ends up being conflicting indeed.

One cannot view sex selection and female foeticide through the lens of the pro-choice debate because in most cases, it lacks the most important aspect – the consent of the mother. And even when there is consent from the mother, the circumstances here are very different from the kind of pregnancy termination that the Bombay High Court judgement (or the Roe v Wade judgement) addresses – because female foeticide inherently stems from a gender bias. Here the violence perpetrated has a specific target, and is a result of patriarchal oppression so to categorize it alongside an abortion which occurs as a result of a woman exercising her agency makes the equation extremely skewed.

Should we, then, take a pro-life outlook when it comes to girl children? This, again, is a complex and debatable issue because the choice should ideally lie with the mother, since it’s her body at the end of the day. But what if the mother’s choice is coloured by gender biases?

Hence, the problems of foeticide and forced abortions in India cannot be as easily contemplated upon in ethical terms created by Western standards of looking at abortion. Here, abortion is gendered on a dual level, and is not just about the female agency of the mother, but also intimately related to the gender of a child. So when we talk about abortion from an Indian context, it’s important for us to take into account all these various sides to the issue.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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