Roe V. Wade: A decision causing massive global impact

Excerpts from the August 2022 Newsletter

In this edition of our newsletter, we consider the very complex issue of abortion in India. Please note that we have included sensitive subject matter in the form of real-life stories and experiences, as we believe it is an especially topical subject in light of the recent overruling in the USA of the landmark abortion decision Roe V. Wade.

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Abortion rights: a complicated matter

In India, like much of the world, abortion is a fraught topic that carries many attendant considerations. While acknowledging that universal access to abortion is fundamental for the safety and empowerment of women, we seek to examine some of the local nuances surrounding this complex and contentious issue.

Our work in India has familiarized us with the often troubling pressures and consequences that affect women seeking abortions, and here we seek to highlight some of these issues.

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In recognition of the inequalities that Indian women face when it comes to family planning measures, the Indian government has updated its laws around abortion as recently as 2021:

“The new Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Act 2021 expands the access to safe and legal abortion services on therapeutic, eugenic, humanitarian and social grounds to ensure universal access to comprehensive care. The new law, which came into force on 25 March 2021, will contribute toward ending preventable maternal mortality to help meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3.1, 3.7 and 5.6.

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We want to make as clear as possible that access to abortion is a fundamental tool for feminism and female empowerment across the globe, and its impact is overwhelmingly positive.

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With this in mind, we simply seek to illustrate some of the complexities surrounding abortion in India that may not be prevalent in the West. As we’ve discussed in previous editions, applying foreign humanitarian principles without taking into account local customs can often result in negative or even dangerous outcomes, as well-intentioned as these projects may be. With abortion in India, because of its centrality to issues of gender, bodily autonomy, and domestic duty, these concerns are especially valid.

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The complexities of Indian culture run deep

 

It is important to remember that women face direct violence and insecurity in relation to their bodies whether or not there is a supportive healthcare system. More specifically, Indian women may have to deal with anger from their in-laws, spouses and/or local community members for not having the ‘correct’ baby, and daughters may face the harsh reality that they are not wanted as much as their male counterparts. 

While sex-selective abortion is illegal in India, it is still carried out in communities in different areas of the country. It is not popular/common everywhere, but many women of Sakhi Kunj (our partner organization) will have encountered some form of pressure in regards to the sex of their children and subsequent pregnancies.  

In societies like India where sons are expected to care for their parents and families throughout their lives, there is a tendency toward “Son-preference”. This is a phenomenon where male children are highly valued because society lends more towards their primacy in the family unit. Marriage customs involve girls being adopted into their in-laws’ families, meaning that the responsibility for caring for parents and relatives rests on the shoulders of the male children. 

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Son-preference


is deeply embedded in Indian culture, and in ways that often actively perpetuate this favouritism. For example, some laws regarding inheritance heavily favour men and male relatives. Women who give birth to girls can face social stratification and discrimination, and this can lead to problematic approaches to abortion and impact a couple’s decision-making when it comes to family planning.

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For this topic, we have gathered stories and experiences from many women on the ground in India, as they can best explain the social conditions which cause these gendered relationships.

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From our empowered women partners:

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In India as the first line of defence against female foeticide, sex determination tests on pregnant women have been illegal since 1994. The government banned the determination of a fetus under the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Regulation and Prevention of Misuse Act of 1994 which was amended in 2002.

But despite these regulations, many women in India still suffer from cultural attitudes and social pressures over the gender of their children. There are a variety of social norms which are affected by our conceptions of the roles played by gender. For example:

— Indian funerals, in general, are carried out by sons, not by daughters. So a son is important for the peace of the soul or for good rebirth after death, and rituals should be done by the son. 

— A son is going to stay with the parents forever and care for them in their old age, whereas a girl will move in with her in-laws or husband. Therefore, a son is needed to carry forward their family.

— Daughters are more expensive for parents and are sometimes viewed as a costly investment, because paying for them to receive education, food, and similar care will only result in the girl leaving to move into her husband’s home. Furthermore, her parents must pay a dowry for her to her husband’s family, something that many parents in villages struggle to afford. This dowry system causes many problems because of its significant expense and how much the girl is blamed for it. 

— Many parents think girls will have affairs or will choose their partner themselves, something that can hurt their social status or standing within the community. On the other hand, boys will get married and the family will receive a daughter-in-law and lots of dowry, so they are viewed as more valuable and less of a social risk.

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Some practices or behaviours which are more specific to rural areas or even towns (in Bihar):

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– Whenever a girl gets married both families and in-laws start to think about her pregnancy. If she conceives within 6 months that is good, otherwise they will get impatient. They do not wait years for her to give birth, instead, they start her on medication for the baby or to assist with conception.

– To get a good membership within the family and a respected position with the in-laws, married women should have a baby within 12 to 20 months after marriage and the baby should be a boy, otherwise, most newlywed women face intense social struggles. If any women have a baby girl first, they will be more unhappy because these days most Hindu families want to have just two children. So if the first is a girl then she is left with just one more chance for her luck to have a baby boy.

– In our Indian culture married young women touch the feet of older in-laws or in-laws’ family members out of respect. The elders then say blessings to them such as: “Beta de Bhagwaan” (God bless you with a son) or “Joda pura kare Bhagwaan” (God bless with more sons), meaning the second baby should be a boy so your life will be good. One popular proverb for the women who have two sons: “Do Do Laal Hai Or Kya Chaye” (Meaning that she has everything in the world by having two sons, she is rich and needs nothing else in life) 

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The popular sentiment within Indian society is that even women themselves want to have a son, in order to be accepted socially and to be given respect within the family unit.

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Shakti’s (not her real name) personal story:

“I have many, many stories related to these issues, as it is prevalent in India that most families desire at least one son, while girls are only ‘okay’.

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For example, within my own family, my older sister-in-law has two sons and my younger sister-in-law also has two sons. I am the only one who has one daughter and one son. I felt blessed but my husband didn’t. He always felt bad not having two sons. He is okay with a daughter but he and his parents always said to me that we have just one child, because my daughter will become a part of her future husband’s family and have her own home/family. So if anything happens to my son or if something is wrong with him, who will care for us in our old age? They said it is not of importance to have a daughter, as she will not be ‘ours’ for long, unlike my son. They say “Beti paraya dhan hai” (meaning daughter is alien money). But I always feel blessed that I have a daughter. I am much more comfortable with my daughter to share and care for, and I love her dearly. 

These pressures were put on me in the past. But I am in a better situation presently, and there are several reasons for this. Now I have a good job and have proved myself capable through my career of earning money for our family and working outside the home. So now my husband has to understand me and listen to me, as I am a supporter of him in many ways and to our family. My health, my age, my education, and my family background have all now contributed to his understanding and stopping the pressure on me to have a second baby boy.

However, there are many women who don’t have the same advantages as me, and in many cases, situations are not good even in well-educated families.”

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Stories/anecdotes from other women in the community:

Having abortions and many babies in wait for a baby boy 

A lady named Seema lives in the Kalyanpuri area of Delhi, she is about 40 years old.

Her first two babies were girls. After that, when she conceived her third pregnancy, her in-laws put pressure on her to check the fetus’ gender. This is illegal here in India now but people still find ways to do it.

Seema’s in-law’s family belongs to the Bihar state of India so for the fetus gender test she went to her in-laws’ village and had a test. When she found out it was a female fetus she had an abortion because she did not want to have a 3rd baby girl. In this way, she had 2 abortions and now she has conceived for the 5th time and she is 3 months pregnant. 

So that is her own desire, with strong influence from her family and society. Her younger sister-in-law Kavita has two sons, so her in-laws respect and love Kavita more, and especially her mother-in-law thinks she is the one who is carrying forward their family, not Seema. They don’t consider her health, financial status or anything, only the two daughters and lack of sons. This is so common in Indian society that many people always believe a son is the person who can run the family, who can serve in old age, and who can take care of each and everything. But in my perception, they don’t. 

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One lady, her name is Sulandri, lives in a small village named Mundakhera, in Uttarakhand State of India. After her marriage, she was blessed with a baby boy first, and all the family members were so happy. After a year they start to think of a second baby, which ended up being a girl. Her in-laws and husband want to have one more son, so she tried again and she again was blessed with a baby girl, so now she has three children. In the last three years, she has had two abortions as she was pregnant with baby girls and she and her family are still waiting to have one more son. This is a very single-minded goal without any care for her or whatever kids they have. 

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This is the story of many women.

Mithlesh, Sabeena, and Sunita. I know these ladies from different areas of India, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal, and yet their stories are all the same, as is true with many women in India.

They are mothers from back in 1980-1990, as around this time ultrasounds or tests of the fetus were not easy to have in rural India. So Mithlesh had 5 daughters and then 2 sons, Sabeena (Mother of Tabbasum and member of Sakhi Kunj) had 7 daughters and then 2 sons, and Sunita had 6 daughters and then one son. 

So without thinking about their health or anything these women continued to give birth to babies in the wait for a baby boy. The family and larger society didn’t give them much respect or care as ladies without sons, so they kept having babies until they had enough sons for them to be given respect.

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Baby girl murder 

There are many true stories where people used to murder baby girls. Below are some of the incidents my mother told me about.

This was very common here in India, when a woman gave birth to a baby girl or more commonly to a 2nd baby girl, people used to put them in an earthen pot and bury them in the ground. Most of the women used to cry and ask for lenience but people would not listen to them. And the other villagers never objected. So these were the conditions. My mother told me one story about her Aunties Village: 

A couple lives in Haridwar now but they belong to a surrounding village. A woman named Chitra gave birth to a 2nd baby girl. Her father-in-law came to her and asked to take the baby girl away. She knew that he would bury her daughter, so Chitra screamed and shouted and demanded to know why the women of the family can have two boys, why can I not have two girls? She threatened to murder her sister-in-law’s son if anyone harmed her daughter. She tried to be brave and finally, the family had to agree with her and she saved the life of her 2nd daughter. I appreciate and honour her courage. 

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Through our partnership with Sakhi Kunj, we aim to empower women in India and create a shift in societal values and cultural attitudes. By providing employment and other financial opportunities such as scholarships, we are able to uplift these women, helping them find agency, respect and value within themselves and within their communities. 


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