Trigger warning: Rape
Posted by Suchitra Dalvie
In much the same way as the oral birth control pill was either vilified or seen as the magic bullet, depending on which side of the uterus you stood, the oral medical abortion pills are receiving similar, almost predictable reactions.
Women’s rights groups and women themselves are hailing it, quite rightly, as the next best thing since the oral birth control pill, while almost everyone else in power, (united as always when faced with anything to do with women’s rights), have denigrated it, created moral panic over it and tried to prevent physical access by banning it and policing it.
At a meeting, I had the privilege of participating in last month, a group of truly badass and amazing women’s rights activists and their supporters engaged in some incredible politically sharp and subversive dialogues and discussions around the latest villain of the drama around women’s sexual lives – the self-managed abortions.
This group defined ‘self-managed’ as running the whole gamut from self- procured (online, from a chemist, through a hotline), to self-administered (taken it on their own in absence of formal system supervision), to self-conducting the actual abortion process (managing the bleeding, the products and their disposal). One of the groups said that they hoped a day would come when every home would have a bottle of Misoprostol pills in the medicine cabinet, right next to the paracetamol or the antacids or the Bandaids, because that is truly the reality of a woman’s life. Sex happens and pregnancy isn’t always a wanted outcome.
One of the groups said that they hoped a day would come when every home would have a bottle of Misoprostol pills in the medicine cabinet, right next to the paracetamol or the antacids or the Bandaids, because that is truly the reality of a woman’s life.
We tried to unpack the various reasons that the ‘system’ feels so threatened by women seeking to manage their own fertility and reproductive autonomy.
The answer, not surprisingly, always comes down to the patriarchy and its need to control women. Women’s mobility, education opportunities, employment and earning capacity, safety concerns, barriers to financial security have all been constructed carefully and elaborately over the centuries to control the most fragile and yet the most powerful notion of them all—the woman should have sex only with whom ‘they’ allow her to and only when‘they’ allow her to.
That is why marriage as an institution is construed as such a water-shed evet in a woman’s life. The best day of her life. Apparently. To be eclipsed only by the day she becomes a mother. Apparently.
There is no genuine fulfillment a woman can feel through any other achievement which may require intellectual or other skills besides fertility. Such a completing her thesis, or flying a plane or becoming Prime Minister or writing the code for NASA’s rockets.
The laws that are created are also geared towards this aim. Thus having sex before marriage has such a heavy social price on it that virginity testing is done, unwed mothers are shamed, their children are considered illegitimate and ‘honour killings’ are justified. So what it comes down to is this: a woman cannot say ‘yes’ before marriage, even if she is above 18 and can vote or stand for elections, or drink, or drive or donate organs.
But once a woman is married in fact she cannot say ‘no’ to her husband and must always be available for sex. At least if you live in one of the countries which do not criminalize marital rape (such as Afghanistan, Congo, India, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia). Many of these countries also top the list for these where girls are being married off as children and there is no sex education in school. And after all that compulsory/ forced sex if there are no children, or no sons, that woman is again at risk of being abandoned, beaten up or subjected to social stigma.
If for some reason the woman is no longer married, because she is divorced, the husband left her, she left him, she is widowed etc then once again society will shame her and blame her for the relationship breakdown, bringing bad luck to the man and causing his death, and then will go further and shame her and/or punish her for still wanting to have a sexual life.
I was at a workshop recently where I was moderating a panel which had a representative of an NGO that works with single and abandoned women. The participants at this workshop were around 80 women and some men from rural and grassroots NGOs across the state. As the panel moderator I asked the audience casually why we didn’t have anyone from the NGO that works with single and abandoned men. They all erupted with laughter. Another panellist worked with a sex workers’ self- help group. Again I asked them what about sex worker clients’ self-help group. And the last panellist was from an NGO working for widows and this time when I asked the question about NGOs working with widowers, there was silence.
having sex before marriage has such a heavy social price on it that virginity testing is done, unwed mothers are shamed, their children are considered illegitimate and ‘honour killings’ are justified.
They understood the point that was being made and the realization that all these groups needed to be set up mainly to support women who were for any reason outside of the accepted sexual relationships that a woman can or is allowed to have in a patriarchal society.
We heard from our panellists the stories of a widow needing an abortion and being raped by the moneylender before he gave her the loan to pay for the service in the private sector. We heard of women who go to work as farm labour being encouraged to have a hysterectomy so that they won’t get pregnant when the contractor rapes them, as he was bound to.
We heard stories of sex workers being kicked by the police, on their stomach, when pregnant, because why the &%*# would a sex worker want to be a mother?
It is such chilling and infuriating stories that remind me every single day just how vital and absolutely critical our work is in advocating for safe abortion as a woman’s right.
Just like the oral pill one generation ago, this pill also has the power to disrupt the narrative and subvert the hegemonic control of the patriarchy on women’s sexual and reproductive lives.
So here is our mantra for the new age: Keep calm and take the medical abortion pill!
- For more on the Birth Control Pill and the moral, religious, medical dimensions read here
- For the W.H.O Guidance of Safe Abortion Regimes and Services read here
- ASAP Medical Abortion Factsheet
Suchitra Dalvie is a women’s health expert and the Coordinator of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership.
The article was originally published in the ASAP blog and has been republished here with permission.
Featured Image Source: NPR