On September 28, International Safe Abortion Day is celebrated across the globe to raise awareness around women's reproductive healthcare. Forty-eight years ago India became one of the first countries to legalise abortion, however, stigma still surrounds abortions and the lack of awareness and information makes matters worse.
When a woman seeking an abortion is shamed and silenced, it leads her to believe that she's doing something wrong and that only 'certain type of women' have abortions. But, abortions actually continue to take place. However, they are not safe. When abortion services are denied or limited, unsafe abortions--performed in unhygienic conditions by untrained providers take place. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide, 25 million unsafe abortions (45% of all abortions) occurred every year between 2010 and 2014. The majority of unsafe abortions, or 97%, occurred in developing countries like Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Tara (name changed) says it was during one of her work projects where she was volunteering as a peer educator, she suspected that she could be pregnant. She was 20. "I vividly remember my pelvic exam. I was anxious." She says she felt self-conscious and constricted during the exam. "And I remember the doctor saying, pretty matter of fact, “relations banate hue to khol lete ho, abhi kya hua”.
Another woman, Kavita (name changed), a working professional, says she wasn't prepared for her partner's extreme reaction after she disclosed to him that she was pregnant and wanted an abortion. "It was heartbreaking to see him register shock, and then indifference. At one point, during one of our fights which ended up in me crying and wanting to talk, anxious, worried, hurt and overwhelmed, he simply took a cab and left," she shared.
Kanika (name changed), another working professional in her 30s says her relationship was complicated. She had gone back to her boyfriend, who had installed spyware on her phone. "When my period didn't occur, a friend gently encouraged me to take the test. I was undeniably pregnant. My boyfriend's response to this was, "How do I know its mine?" My boyfriend, who had fathered that foetus abandoned me. He was openly belligerent and replaced me with a woman who had the same name as me! My best friend of 14 years went pro-life, said awful, painful things and left my life," she shared.
Tara, Kavita and Kanika are not alone. There are many other women who are using narratives to break the taboo that surrounds abortion. These stories are a part of My Body, My Choice, a campaign by Global Health Strategies (GHS) in Indian and abroad. GHS uses advocacy, communications and policy analysis to advance issues and power campaigns that improve health and well-being around the world.
To raise the discourse on abortion as a critical rights issue, and address the stigma associated with it, #MyBodyMyChoice is a social media campaign affirming a woman’s right to make choices about her body, health and life. Under the campaign, women can narrate their stories with the hashtag #MyAbortionStory, ask questions and seek advice.
"Too often, the fear of facing embarrassment guides women’s thinking and perceptions. This campaign reinforces what should be the norm - it’s her body and her choice! From September 2018, when we launched to today, our focus has been clear - to empower our audience - women and men - with correct information that may help prevent unsafe abortions. Together with our partners, we have also been able to spotlight the need for amendments in the current Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act," says Nidhi Dubey, Senior Vice President, Global Health Strategies.
Since its inception in September 2018, the campaign has reached more than 80 million people on social media, garnering statements of support from influencers such as Sushmita Sen, Konkona Sensharma, Twinkle Khanna, Barkha Dutt and Priyanka Raina.
As part of this effort, GHS has joined forces with artist and influencer Indu Harikumar, who is crowdsourcing and illustrating women’s stories. The illustrations on her Instagram handle @induviduality bring first-person narratives to life, helping women and girls who have had similar experiences understand that they are not alone.
"Many people think you need consent from a family member for abortion, such as a parent or husband. However, the law does not require consent from anyone other than the woman if she is above the age of 18. Under 18, a girl does need consent from a parent or guardian," says Nidhi.
A common question that arises time and again is whether abortion is safe. The answer is, YES with an IF. "Abortion is one of the world’s safest medical procedures if conducted by a registered medical practitioner. However, it is not safe to try to conduct an abortion on your own or with a quack. Many women and men who haven’t gotten abortions themselves have asked how to be a supportive friend/partner, which is encouraging to see," says Dr Michelle Frank, Director of Women's Health, SHEROES, who is also a part of the campaign.
"One common myth women still believe in is that abortion leads to infertility. This is completely false: abortions don’t affect fertility. There is also a common misconception that emergency contraception and abortion are the same. However, they are quite different: emergency contraception prevents pregnancy but cannot cause an abortion if a woman is already pregnant," adds Dr Michelle.
While the experience of abortion is unique and personal for everyone, support from friends and family, reaffirming the woman’s choice, can be very valuable. It's refreshing to see that some of the stories that we came across on Indu Harikumar's Instagram talk about support from partners, friends and family.
"I went back to my life feeling one-hundred percent that everything was as it should be. It was only a week before I resumed the normal pace of my eat-sleep-repeat life. I cried a little, laughed a little, and talked a whole lot - with friends, colleagues, and eventually my mother and sister. Everyone rallied around me like protective elephant mamas, I was well fed and watered and very well taken care of," says a submitter on Induviduality.
Some women receive the support they needed – from their partners, families and friends. Others may go through the entire process themselves or face push-back, which can be isolating or even traumatizing. "As a society, I feel we need to do better to support women’s choice in the arena of abortion and beyond by being good friends, family members and community members," says Dr Michelle.
Women who want to make this choice deserve our solidarity and support. As more and more women march in to demand that their voices be heard, let's do our bit by educating people in our lives about the need for safe abortion.
Featured Image: Agents of Ishq, Instagram
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