I was cribbing about my housemaid, who had taken a leave a day before and still had not shown up after her usual time. There were lots of chores to be completed, and I also had to submit my medical thesis on ‘abortions in India’. I believed that I knew everything about my topic but talking to her gave a new angle to my study. I got a reason to write this piece too. When she returned, I scolded her, asking for an alibi for her absence, expecting it to be some silly nonsensical one, but surprisingly, her answer left me stunned.
Geeta, a woman in her neighbourhood, had died last night. She contracted an infection after she had an abortion in a dingy clinic off the city, a week before. The person in charge who took care of the surgical abortion process was a compounder with no medical knowledge. Nobody knew about her abortion until the doctor declared her dead after examining her. On being asked, he informed that the infection in her uterus had spread – leading to multiple organ failure. The unsafe abortion took her life, just because she was unaware about unsafe abortion and its repercussions.
My study now had a lot to record in its pages. I set on a fresh one with a different and closer perspective. I decided to probe it further, and know the real cause of why women do not opt for safer abortions.
In a country like India, where marriage is preferred more than education, and sex education is considered a taboo, opting for unsafe abortions is not new. While the men of the house are not ready to take responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy, the women are forced to abort prematurely and often under precarious conditions.
There are various reasons for unsafe abortions all around the world such as unintended pregnancies, pregnancies caused by rape, forced abortions and pregnancy-related abuse or violence. With domestic violence witnessing a high, none of these reasons seems surprising.
Though we cannot ignore the reasons mentioned above, barriers to accessing safe abortions remain the prime reason for availing unsafe abortions in our country. Having witnessed conservative family values, listening to tales of domestic violence and reading about unwanted pregnancies, one core reason that I can apparently figure out behind this medical evil is the dominance of patriarchy in women-related decisions.
In the northern states of India like Haryana where a girl child is considered a bane, aborting a female foetus is quite common. Moreover, in these same places, the status quo and honour of the men of the house are quite high. Clubbing the two, unsafe abortions seems a feasible option for such families which do not ‘need’ a girl child. But, they also don’t want their names to be spoiled by letting people know that the woman of the house has been forced to abort. And therefore, unsafe abortions are a comfortable and convenient option to get rid of the problem.
Worse is the fact that women who are mostly illiterate, face the brunt of unhygienic unsafe abortions as they are unaware of the underlying dangers to their health – due to the unavailability of safe services and the lack of information. The lack of adequate knowledge about access to safe abortions among the rural women of our country has made them helpless when it comes to ensuring their well-being and health. Caught in the orthodox system and traditions, they lack agency to make decisions for themselves. Take, for example, the challenges faced by rural women in their menstrual days. Thousands of women in the country still rely on a piece of cloth during their periods, risking their health due to the lack of sanitary napkins and other menstrual hygiene products.
Similarly, unaware of the dangers of unsafe abortion, women access abortions in an unauthorised and obscure clinic, even if its harmful for their health – owing to the lack of alternatives.
Another reason women opt for unsafe abortions is the unavailability of a better choice. Many times, even when the woman is adamant about compromising on her health and hygiene, she is forced to take up whatever option is available as there is no other choice left for her. We lack sufficient medical establishments and doctors to guarantee safe abortions to every woman in every part of this country.
The medical schemes launched by the government usually do not reach the deserving citizens, and the conditions remain the same. Though development could be measured by the promises of the politicians, like giving a bullet train to the country and so on, the fundamental rights for every citizen is still an issue which needs to be addressed seriously.
Even after 70 years of independence, hundreds of villages lack the necessary medical facilities. Often, there is no hospital and only a small clinic or a dispensary with inadequate facilities and tools in these areas. Even if there is a hospital, these hospitals lack good doctors and equipment to assist the people. Naturally, in such cases, women are forced to accept the option available to them putting their health and eventually life at stake.
In a country like India, even in urban areas, the honour of the family sometimes comes above a woman’s life. Getting operated in a hospital where people might come to know about the ‘killing of the child’ is despised by the woman and her family members and is considered morally unacceptable. The abortion under situations such as a pregnancy resulting from an extramarital affair or out of wedlock is carried out as discreetly as possible as it is easier to have it in a place with no ‘public attention’. The woman and the family might have the choice of equipped hospitals and experienced doctors easily available, but they would still prefer some obscure looking dispensary – to make sure that they are not ‘discovered’.
Taboos have been a permanent cause of almost all the major sufferings of a woman living in this country. Discussing women-related issues and making an effort to eliminate these problems has never been a habit for the Indian society. People here believe that because a pattern has been followed for years, it is right and should not be questioned. It is evident in the practice of sex-selective abortions and preferring marriage over education for a girl child, and early marriage to name a few. When elders of a community pass a verdict concerning the women of the house, the younger women have no say in defending themselves or even expressing their opinion. This accords to agreeing to whatever they are told and in turn neglecting their health big time.
While availing proper and reliable medical facilities are essential for eliminating cases of unsafe abortions, spreading awareness and knowledge regarding the subject is equally important. As it is a matter of women and their health, sometimes, the issue of uplifting the dignity and respect of women also pops up. In the end, it is necessary to mention that in matters of their health and life, women should have the freedom and the right to speak up and opt for safe and hygienic medical processes.