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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 10/4/20

'May you be the mother of many sons...'

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Rights-based access to safe abortion is essential in normal times as well as during humanitarian crises
Rights-based access to safe abortion is essential in normal times as well as during humanitarian crises
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...so goes an old common blessing given to an Indian bride, talks of gender equality notwithstanding. While the small family norm slogan of 'hum do, hamare do' (we two, ours two) has rubbed in well the penchant for begetting at least one son has not waned.

Many modern Indian women find their womanhood incomplete without begetting a son. I know of several highly educated and professionally qualified young Indian women who heaved a sigh of relief and smug satisfaction on having a boy as their first or second born. A complete Indian family is envisaged as one with two kids- at least one of who ought be a son.

This is what centuries of patriarchy entrenched in our society has done to our psyche, which even a Harvard degree is unable to wipe out. One shudders to think of the plight of the less privileged ones. No wonder India's sex ratio at birth stands at 919 girls for every 1000 boys. While the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act prohibits sex-selection of the foetus, its enforcement is lax, resulting in high incidences of female foeticide in many states. Ironically, those very families who have no qualms about killing the female foetus, revel in worshipping female deities with great pomp and show.

Having access to reproductive justice that entails "the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children in safe and sustainable communities" is a far cry for most women, not only in India but in many countries of the Asia Pacific region.

The term reproductive justice was coined and formulated as an organizing framework by a group of Black women in Chicago in 1994, just ahead of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo.

Reproductive justice links reproductive rights (legal rights to access reproductive health care services including abortion and birth control) with the social, political and economic inequalities that affect a woman's ability to access reproductive health care services. Core components of reproductive justice include equal access to safe abortion, affordable contraceptives and comprehensive sex education, as well as freedom from sexual violence.

A fiery and enlightened panel of women activists aired their views on these issues during a recent online session of the 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR10), focussing on safe abortion in the region.

Mortality due to unsafe abortions still remains high at 13% of all maternal deaths in South East and South Asia. Abortion is illegal in 3 Asian countries- Iraq, Laos and Philippines. 17 countries allow abortion without restrictions and others allow it only under certain conditions. But even in countries like Cambodia, India and Nepal, that have liberal abortion laws, many women continue to face a host of barriers to obtaining safe, legal procedures. In Thailand, despite access to safe abortion services and contraceptives, teenage pregnancy remains a challenge. Stigma, coupled with lack of information, makes these services more inaccessible to unmarried women.

Sivananthi Thanenthiran, Executive Director, ARROW (Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women), blames it upon the growing influence of religious fundamentalism and its anti-gender ideology with the rise in right wing governments.

"Extremist ideologies thrive on asserting control over women's bodies, autonomy, sexuality and their daily lives. This confluence of conservative religious, cultural and customary practices is often interlinked with the pursuit of power. Criminalisation of abortion is a tool of patriarchy and structural racism. Safe abortion for women is not just about choice, but also about access. Governments should eliminate all legal barriers that limit women's access to sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and information, including access to safe abortion. Generating evidence based data on abortion and related issues through a rights-based analytical framework is essential to influence policy and strengthen advocacy and accountability", she asserts.

Dr Suchitra Dalvie, co-founder and Coordinator of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, roots for recognizing the political significance of safe self-managed abortions that governments should make available to pregnant women as a valid and safe choice, and not in situations where they are forced to do it underground. According to her, a pregnant woman should have enough accurate information to be able to self-assess her pregnancy, self-procure the pills and self-conduct the process of abortion in a location of her choice without having to visit a medical facility. She should also be able to access a healthcare provider if need be at any stage of the process.

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