Sex, pregnancy, babies: taboo subjects? Absolutely not! Not if you are married. The Indian cultures and societies validate, sanction and many even celebrate these when you are married. But, what if you are not married? All it takes is the unmarried status to make these matters into – “mooh kala kardi”- shame, dishonour and guilt.
India has its largest ever adolescent and youth population. According to UNFPA projections, India will continue to have one of the youngest populations in the world until 2030. The Guardian reports 600 million people are under 25 years of age. That is more than half of India’s population. Do you think they all wait to get married to have sex, get pregnant and have babies? Sexuality is being explored by the youth. However, cultural and societal taboos continue to exist in many parts of India. And no surprises, it is always the unmarried women who bear the brunt of it all, especially if she is pregnant.
Ironically, India has one of the most liberal laws in the world when it comes to termination of pregnancy. However, it is no relief when you realize the barriers that women have to overcome in accessing safe and legal abortion in India. According to reports, 56% of abortion performed in India is estimated to be unsafe. That is more than half of the estimated 6.4 million abortions that happen in India every year. If that does not worry you, then perhaps this can: unsafe abortion is the third leading cause of maternal deaths in India.
The Hidden Pockets Collective way
The collective is using technology to increase awareness of sexual and reproductive rights amongst the youth. Using multiple platforms in social media, it has been striving to increase both awareness and access for youth to address their concerns on sexual and reproductive health & well being. Collective is the first organization in India to have a real time Whatsapp Careline service where the youth can reach out for help.
SAAF (Safe Abortion Action Fund) project “Abortion is Care”
Focusing exclusively on 4 districts in Karnataka (Bengaluru, Mysore, Shimoga and Ballari) Hidden Pockets Collective has been working on SAAF (Safe Abortion Action Fund) project “Abortion is Care”.
Safe and legal abortion should no longer be a matter which is out of reach for the youth in these districts and the project is making it happen.
Hidden Pockets Collective launched an extensive mapping and auditing of hospitals, clinics and doctors, in these four districts, who are authorized to give abortion according to the mandates of the MTP Act, 1971.
The challenges were numerous to carry out an in-person audit during the weeks of lockdown when the country had come to a stand still. Hidden Pockets adapted to the lockdown by launching the preliminary call audits, at the same time anticipating ease in access to these 4 districts to do the in-person audits, during the lag phase of the pandemic, The call audits findings were a mixed bag. Many doctors from all the four districts, outrightly said no to take up cases of unmarried women. Some doctors, however, gave us the hope that not all roads are closed.
Mysore: not a bleak picture after all!
Mysore, apart from its fame for being a sought after tourist destination in India, is an emerging hub for techies. Many youngsters from all over the country throng the place for launching their career in the Information & Technology industry. You could even say Mysore is a youthful district! When we started our call audits, we were wondering what will happen to the youth during the pandemic when they want to avail SRHR services, especially abortion services.
Doctor A, who is a consultant OBG doctor at a few private hospitals in Mysore, revealed that in one of the private hospitals where she works, they get numerous cases of young unmarried women who want termination of pregnancy. This, of course, was in the pre-pandemic times. The hospital which provides both medical and surgical termination of pregnancy has had cases where young unmarried women have approached them and were hesitant to provide ID proofs. Doctor A revealed that some of the doctors, including her, have helped even such cases. However, she insisted to us that it is always better that women provide ID proofs.
Doctor A came across as a person who is not very judgemental. When speaking about abortion for unmarried women, she was direct and had no qualms about giving them an abortion. This came as a surprise to us because many doctors we spoke to in Mysore were very uncomfortable about helping unmarried women.
We were impressed when Doctor A said that, for women to get the termination of pregnancy, there is no need for parents’ or partner’s signature. Doctor A added that as long as the woman is an adult, she can give her signatures wherever needed for the abortion.
But of course, Doctor A did not open up to us so quickly to reveal all these. In the earlier part of the phone call with her, she spoke to us in a matter of fact manner as a doctor would speak to a patient. But when we went on to ask many a question, she got defensive and wanted to know who we are, what exactly we are looking for, why we are asking her so many questions. And we had to reveal to her about Hidden Pockets Collective. It was only after a lengthy disclosure which she patiently listened to, did she open up to us and gave us the needed information.
Mysore did the unthinkable!
When we made our calls to a top private hospital in Mysore, which is part of the hospital chain spread all over India, we were very sure that there won’t be any hassle for unmarried women to get termination of pregnancy at this hospital. After all, this hospital brand stands for corporate and profit culture when it comes to healthcare delivery. But our audit calls shocked the lights out of us!
Doctor B, who works at this hospital told us that for procedures were signatures are needed, it was not enough for an adult woman to sign. The hospital wants the signatures of either the husband or the parent or any first degree relative to give consent as well. Doctor B, went onto stress that for unmarried women, her partner can give the signature and if he is not physically present with her, then the consent can be sent through fax to the hospital! We were flummoxed! “Fax? They want fax from the partner stating consent? What if the partner is nonexistent? What if the fax can be faked?” we were left wondering! We did not ask her for clarification because it was very loud and clear that the hospital was not at all helpful to unmarried women.
Field work amidst the pandemic
As the weeks go by and we all are starting to let it sink in: the virus is here to stay, we also are looking forward to having safe access to Mysore. Our preliminary search, so far, has given us the narratives from doctors. We are eager to meet the communities and youth of Mysore and hear what they have to say when it comes to accessing sexual and reproductive health services. We are sure that having the youth with us will help us see Mysore through another lens.
Dr. Nishitha Aysha Ashraf is Programme Associate for SAAF Project at Hidden Pockets Collective. She completed her B.A. Journalism & Communication (2010) and Bachelor of Dental Surgery (2015) from Manipal, Karnataka. She has covered the Nipah outbreak in Kerala during her stint as Health Reporter with The News Minute (2018). The reportage furthered her interest to be a key player in public health/ community health. Her internship and work at SOCHARA – Society for Community Health Awareness, Research and Action (2019) was instrumental to learn more about the People’s Health Movement. She is keen on exploring the SRHR issues of Kerala, especially those amongst the Muslim and Christian communities.