Co-authored by Shivi Sukhija and Parul
Societal norms and cultures affect all of us and often take over our decision making powers and capabilities. One commonly occurring, but rarely discussed, instance is when a woman has an unintended pregnancy. Any woman in such a scenario, whether married or unmarried, will have two options available with her – to continue the pregnancy or to consider various options available for its termination or abortion.
The decision should be hers and Indian law also permits termination of pregnancy under a broad range of conditions. But a complicated journey begins when she decides to terminate the pregnancy and due to societal concerns and taboos attached with abortion, she herself or her partner are unable to discuss their thoughts and feelings with peers and families. As a result, in an effort to hide the unintended pregnancy and their decision to terminate it, the woman and her partner end up seeking unsafe abortion services.
Every year, approximately 1.6 crore abortions take place in India and yet we don’t talk about it openly. This affects women in rural areas more severely where the hesitation and hush-hush behaviour often restrict women from reaching the right health facility on time, especially in case of any complication or emergency arising out of unsafe abortions.
To create an enabling environment for safe and comprehensive abortion care services and to increase the community’s awareness about abortion, a network of local NGOs has been working in 20 districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The network called ‘Sanjha Prayas’ receives technical support from Ipas Development Foundation and has taken the discourse on abortion, from the national and state levels to the grassroots. Network partners carried out community research last year, in which they talked to married and unmarried men, women and frontline health workers about sexual and reproductive health and rights.
From their interactions, they realised that most people do not even know that abortion is legal in India. This is when the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, commonly known as the MTP Act has been in force since 1971, allowing abortions of up to 20 weeks of gestation under broad conditions. One of the network partners also came across a couple who was socially boycotted for a long period of time after they decided to opt for an abortion.
Some frontline workers also accepted that rather than linking women seeking an abortion to the appropriate health facilities, they at times advise them to continue the pregnancy, and go for sterilisation later.
Community leaders like Panchayat representatives were unclear about the potential role that they can play in ensuring health services as well as open conversations about abortion in the community.
Overall, the members of Sanjha Prayas found that local communities often see abortion as a sin and there is a severe lack of support for women and their partners who want to avail abortion services. Lack of a supportive environment leads women to avail unsafe services and risk their lives and health.
To change this, while on one side we need to ensure awareness about legality and availability of abortion services, on the other hand, we have to change the way people perceive abortion by encouraging conversations about it. It is crucial to provide every woman with a support system that empowers her to take decisions regarding her reproductive health and rights.
We understand that progress will be slow but we can all contribute our bit and facilitate gradual changes in our respective communities. We can start by talking about this topic among our peers and family!