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Forced Motherhood: The Insufficient Abortion Law In India

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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.

This is the era when everybody is talking about women’s rights but the basic right of bodily autonomy with respect to reproductive rights is subject to huge contradictions. Access to safe abortion service and post-abortion care should be the right of every woman irrespective of the marital or social status. There are dramatically contrasting abortion laws around the globe because of the legal, moral and ethical dilemmas attached to abortion. In some countries, abortion is the matter of personal choice while in others it is absolutely illegal. In most of cases, abortion is a qualified right subject to the extraordinary conditions like a danger to the life of the mother, fetal impairment or cases of rape.

In India, abortion is a qualified right under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. Now the question is whether the present law is sufficient to help the women to avail safe termination of pregnancy as a right. The answer is a ‘no’. As per a study by the Lancet, 78% of the total abortions conducted in India in 2015 were done using unsafe methods which contributed to 8% maternal deaths. This devastating data clearly indicates lacuna in the abortion laws in India.

A woman does not have the sole say in the performance of the abortion. The Act bars abortion if the pregnancy has crossed the 20-week mark unless a registered medical practitioner certifies to a court that the continued pregnancy is life-threatening for either the mother or the baby or unborn child would suffer from ‘physical or mental abnormalities’ or may be ‘seriously handicapped’. Thus, after twenty weeks a woman cannot medically terminate the pregnancy without the Court order subject to the only exception i.e. the immediately necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman. This cumbersome legal procedure forces women to approach from district courts to the Supreme Court for permission to medically terminate the pregnancies over 20 weeks. The majority of these women belong to vulnerable sections like child rape victims, destitute women, women with substantial fetus abnormalities etc.

The maximum permissible time limit must be decided only after due consideration of all the relevant factors including the life of the fetus after birth, and the mental, physical and emotional anguish of the mother. The present 20-week ceiling for legally permissible pregnancy is insufficient. In a majority of cases, substantial fetal abnormalities are detected only between 16 and 22 weeks. Further, parents also need some time to ponder over whether they want to continue with the pregnancy or not. So, there can be the strong case of the termination of pregnancy after 20 weeks. Therefore, it is important to increase the present ceiling.

The 1971 Act also covers single unmarried adult women, except for one clause reserved for married women which is abortion because of contraceptive failure. In a conservative society like ours where sexual agency outside the marital relationship is subject to severe criticism, the lack of the access to safe abortion services renders women vulnerable to exploitation and illegal abortions. According to a WHO report, in India, access to safe abortion through the public health system is mainly restricted to cities. Despite a mandate to provide abortion services, less than 20% of primary health care centres provide such facilities in most of the states. Many centres occasionally provide the service either because of a shortage of trained doctors or poorly functioning equipment.

In 2014, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released a draft of the MTP (Amendment) Bill 2014 with an objective to shift the focus of the Indian abortion discourse from health care providers to women. Another welcomed step in the Bill is the explicit inclusion of abortion care to unmarried women in the case of unwarranted pregnancies. The gestational limit for abortion has been proposed to be extended to 24 weeks subject to exclusion of specific fetal anomalies after this period. There has been criticism of the Bill for allowing non-allopathic and mid-level healthcare providers to perform abortions which I believe is a subject of discussion. There is also the requirement of the formation of permanent bodies dealing specifically with the access to abortion. Recently, the Apex Court has urged the Government to set up permanent medical boards across the country for expedient access to abortion care to women, especially child rape victims.

Unfortunately, the amendment Bill has been in the cold storage for the past three years. This is distressing that a crucial issue like the amendment to MTP Act has been the subject to such ignorance. The access to safe abortion is a basic human right for a woman. The law must be changed with an immediate effect to give the bodily autonomy to women and decrease their vulnerability from subjective interpretations by medical practitioners and Courts. Robust laws without any discrimination are the need of the hour to save women from the danger of lifelong distress of carrying unwarranted pregnancies and unsafe and illegal abortion.

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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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