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Can India Learn From Ireland’s Mistakes When It Comes To Abortion Rights?

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Ireland will go into polls on Friday for a historic and landmark referendum on the future of abortion laws. The procedure is currently restricted by the 8th amendment of their constitution, which protects the rights of the mother and her unborn child. The discussion on the laws related to abortion flared up after an Indian-origin woman Savita Halappanavar who was along 17 weeks of her pregnancy died after she was denied an abortion after being diagnosed with blood poisoning. The results to be announced on Saturday will change the face of the women rights in Ireland, but what about the rights pertaining to abortion in India?

The big question that stands is if it is accepted by the people of our country, where the word ‘sex’ in itself is a taboo.

The Laws In India

The Indian abortion laws falls under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, which was enacted by the Indian Parliament in the year 1971. Access to abortion is legal but restricted in India. It can only be performed up to 20 weeks of conception and after the 20-week mark, it can only be performed under special circumstances, at a court’s discretion. 20 weeks are also divided into two categories: If the pregnancy is under 12 weeks, it has to be signed off by only one doctor, who can then perform the procedure on the mother. As it crosses the 12-week mark, it has to be signed off by two doctors. The underlining point is that a woman can’t solely decide to abort the baby if she desires to. According to the MTP Act, it can be performed with the consent of the doctor under four circumstances only:

If continuation of the pregnancy poses any risks to the life of the mother or to her physical or mental health.

If the foetus has any severe abnormalities.

If pregnancy occurred as a result of failure of contraception (but this is only applicable to married women).

If pregnancy is a result of sexual assault or rape.

Also, what becomes a problem with this provision is the slow and drawn out law proceedings. One case that deserves mention with regard to this problem is the case of a 14-year-old from UP who was raped but denied abortion because the law proceedings took entire eight weeks, leading her to the stage of ‘advanced pregnancy’ (about 33 weeks). Sadly, the girl had to marry her rapist, following ostracization from the family and society.

Why Are Women Being Misled?

The point that people majorly mistake is that a pregnant female has to be accompanied by either the father or any member of her family for abortion, which is misleading because the MTP Act gives adult women the autonomy to decide for themselves. A doctor cannot ask for anyone’s consent except for the mother’s. Due to poor public information system, the vast majority of women in rural area are unaware of the fact that abortion is legal. This has further contributed to increased female mortality rate in India. Lack of information about such an important issue forces women to buy over the counter abortion pills, which shouldn’t be taken without a doctor’s help. This has also led to an increase in the number of quacks, who operate under unsanitary conditions and are unlicensed.

With the advancement of technology, our government should increase the maximum bar to get an abortion from 20 weeks to 24 weeks. Doctors say that it is completely safe to abort a baby before 24 weeks. But, why are these measures not taken?

Women’s’ right activists fight over the omission of woman’s choice and want the government to increase the 20 weeks bar.

Draft medical termination of pregnancy (amendment) bill, 2014, takes care of all the things mentioned above but the after taking various sounds of the cabinet, it is till stuck in Prime minister’s office. It is probably not important for them, as the cabinet is dominated by male ministers and the fact that men don’t get pregnant so it is a moot point for them.

Indian society has changed drastically over the past few decades. Single women are more confident about being sexually active than before. Many women are divorced, single, or in a live-in relationship. We need to recognize the rights of all these women in our country and more flexible laws should be enacted so that unfortunate cases like that of Savita Halappanavar does not repeat here.

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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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