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The Missing Link Between Abortion, Sexuality And Women’s Rights

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By Surabhi Srivastava and Kristin Francoeur

Rebecca Traister, in her article for the New Republic, titled Let’s Just Say It: Women Matter More Than Fetuses Do, puts it bluntly: abortions are about women, not foetuses. We’ll go one step further, be more explicit and posit that abortions are about women being able to assert control over their body and sexuality. And that is a good thing! However, this is precisely also the reason why the general discourse on abortion is so very controversial, and the discourse against abortion especially so vitriolic.

Globally, the discourse against abortion has always been preoccupied with managing women’s bodies, and thus also intimately connected with maintaining the patriarchal status quo and views on female sexuality. Abortion is not talked about openly because people don’t want to contemplate the idea that women have sex for pleasure, or might refuse to accept pregnancy as a ‘punishment’ for flouting a patriarchal system that has decided women’s sexual experiences should be limited to a reproductive nation-building exercise that happens within the family unit into which the woman marries.

This is true even within the Indian context. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 or the MTP Act of 1971, grants that abortion is legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, however, only under a certain range of conditions. Moreover, deciding whether to grant an abortion is the discretion of the medical practitioner, and given the degree to which female sexuality is controlled and stigmatized, it’s often women who bear the burden of explaining how carrying the pregnancy to term might be detrimental to their physical and mental health.

Neha Dixit, in her investigative reporting on stigma around abortion and poor access to legal abortion in India, called Shamed and Scarred: Stories of ‘Legal’ Abortions in India, has summarized the dilemma women face aptly: “It is almost implied that married women must state contraceptive failure and single women must state coercion or rape as a reason for pregnancy. Merely stating that it is an unwanted pregnancy is not enough.” The MTP Act, as Dr Manisha Gupte, a well-known abortion rights advocate puts it, is not rights affirming.

The law wasn’t articulated and interpreted with the intent to empower women to gain control over their bodies, sexuality, fertility and reproduction. It is well known that it was instead introduced out of concerns for the growing population and for the burden of unsafe abortion on high numbers of maternal deaths in the 1960s.

As a result, even though the law has been on the books now for over 40 years, stigma and shame around abortion continue to persist both among communities and health service providers, access to safe and legal abortion in India continues to be fraught with many difficulties, and mortality and morbidity due to unsafe abortion are still shockingly high.

To undo the stigma around abortion, it is thus essential that we undo the stigma around female sexuality. Women’s bodies and sexuality have always been a subject of public debate, but we ought to change the current discourse. And that change won’t come about by refusing to talk about abortion and female sexuality in a nuanced way.

The first step, therefore, is to create safe spaces and opportunities for women to be able to share their personal narratives of abortion. It is important to keep in mind, however, that sharing personal narratives of abortion is not a political strategy: it is first and foremost about respecting the storyteller and creating an intimate space for an alternative discourse. Yet this alternative discourse can also lead to significant political effects.

If we start to talk openly about the diversity of abortion views and experiences, we also create an opportunity for discussing the diversity of female sexualities and their various expressions, along with contemplating an array of possible definitions and manifestations of “family” outside of the established norm.

Speaking out about abortion also helps us in confronting the systemic inequalities and regulations that erect barriers not just in women’s lives but also in the lives of all those constrained by patriarchy. Part of this re-imagining of family means acknowledging that motherhood is not for everyone, and should not be mandated in any case.

In order to enable this sharing of personal experiences and stories of abortion, we as feminists also ought to ensure that abortion is not the sole focus, and instead, our advocacy must be intersectional and inclusive.

For too long, “pro-choice” has appeared synonymous with the idea that abortion on demand is the end-game, when in fact we need to talk about abortion in a way that demonstrates the degree to which access to stigma-free, safe abortion matters to broader reproductive justice and social justice goals – including caring for children by deciding if or when it’s best to bring them into the world, and having access to resources to support the children one already has.

In fact, adhering to popular arguments that abortion is a matter of privacy and choice, can contribute further to silencing and stigma because conventional definitions of these concepts assume multiple layers of privilege. And as Rosalind Petchesky, the founder of The International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group (IRRAG) puts it, the idea that a woman actually owns her body, “stands not as a description of reality but as a rhetorical achievement” at best.

It is of urgent need, therefore, to locate and talk about abortion within the broader framework of sexuality and rights. It ought to be addressed with all its complexity and nuances within the paradigm of comprehensive sexuality education and not merely confined to the legal and public health dimensions. Katha Pollitt, feminist and author of the recent ground-breaking book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, puts it beautifully when she says:

“We need to talk about abortion in its full human setting: sex and sexuality, love, violence, privilege, class, race, school and work, men, the scarcity of excellent, respectful reproductive health care, and of realistic, accurate information about sex and reproduction. We need to talk about why there are so many unplanned and unwanted pregnancies – which means we need to talk about birth control, but also about so much more than that: about poverty and violence and family troubles, about sexual shyness and shame and ignorance and the lack of power so many women experience in bed and in their relationships with men…”

And so, to revolutionise the way we think and talk about abortion, it’s time to stop hiding behind the rhetoric of development and health, and instead, address the elephant in the room –female sexuality. And the time to do that is now.


This article was originally published here in the June 1, 2015 edition of In Plainspeak, an e-magazine on issues of sexual and reproductive health in the Global South.

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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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