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My Maid’s Story Exposed How Ignorant I Was About Abortion

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MyBodyMyChoice logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #MyBodyMyChoice, a campaign by Global Health Strategies and Youth Ki Awaaz to create awareness around access to safe abortion and women's right to reproductive justice. Join the conversation by publishing a story here.

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.

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Geeta, a woman in her neighbourhood, had died last night. After she had an abortion in a dingy clinic off the city, she contracted an infection 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 of 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, unsafe abortions are 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 worldwide, 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.

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Worse is the fact that women who are mostly informally educated, 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 our country’s rural women 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 it’s harmful to 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 government’s medical schemes 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, every citizen’s fundamental rights is still an issue that 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 family’s honour 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 it is right and should not be questioned because a pattern has been followed for years. 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 is essential for eliminating unsafe abortions, spreading awareness and knowledge regarding the subject is equally important. As it is a matter of women and their health, sometimes, 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.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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