Tuesday, June 28, 2022

“Abortions Might Be Legal In India, But They Strip Our Dignity”

 [Published in Youth Ki Awaaz]

When the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) overthrew the Roe v/s Wade judgment, a section of cis-het men from India took to social media to talk gleefully about how India is way ahead of the United States when it comes to reproductive rights of women.

Yes, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 and its subsequent amendments provides a framework for married and unmarried women to access safe and legal abortions. However, in reality, women in India still lack autonomy in their own bodies.

The MTP Act of 1971 was brought in as a measure for population control, rather than for the emancipation of women, which places many restrictions on the ease with which women can access abortions.

A woman can medically terminate a pregnancy only after receiving an opinion from a doctor. The objective of this was to ensure that only qualified medical practitioners conduct abortions, under proper conditions. However, in reality, it means that a woman cannot purchase a pill for the medical termination of pregnancy unless she has a prescription from a doctor. This exposes women seeking medical termination of pregnancy to an unfriendly and judgemental healthcare system.

Unmarried women are exposed to the judgement of the medical system, and are often threatened with doxing. Married women not accompanied by their spouse (and/ or mother-in-law) are routinely harassed, and the fact that most of them are not aware that they do not need spousal permission to access a medical termination of pregnancy makes them particularly vulnerable. Women from vulnerable communities, especially poor, uneducated, lower caste or tribal women are entirely at the mercy of a system that systematically strips them of their dignity and subjects them to much physical, verbal and mental abuse.

The MTP Act has a very narrow definition of ‘women’ and transgender and gender non-conforming persons are excluded from the purview of the Act, making it close to impossible for them to access safe and legal abortions.

Essentially, though medical termination of pregnancy has been legal in India for over five decades, the conditions under which abortions can be accessed strip the dignity of the woman, and leave her at the mercy of an extremely judgemental and unfriendly medical system.

Indian Women Too Lack Autonomy Over Our Bodies

Access to medical termination of pregnancy is only one part of the picture. The reason why women are drowning in collective grief after the overthrow of Roe w/s Wade is that we have essentially been told that we do not have autonomy over our own bodies.

In India, decisions around the reproductive health of women are almost always taken by the spouse and the extended family, and not by the women themselves. The societal desire for a male child is so high, that women are forced to undergo multiple pregnancies till they deliver a male child. Though sex determination is illegal, a flourishing black market exists, and pregnant women are coerced to undergo medical termination of pregnancy if the foetus is found to be female.

The woman lacks any autonomy over her body, and it is the spouse and his family that take decisions around her reproductive health.

Whether it is denying women the right to choose whether or not to abort after an unwanted pregnancy, or coercing a woman to abort a foetus of the wrong gender, it is the woman who lacks the agency to express her choice.

Women are denied autonomy over their bodies in other ways too. Women, especially poor, uneducated, lower caste and/or tribal women, are often encouraged to have hysterectomies so they can work without being hindered by periods or pregnancies. Studies have shown that a third of female migrant workers working as sugarcane cutters in Bheed have had a hysterectomy, and are suffering the consequences of an avoidable surgical procedure.

Many pathological labs refuse to perform PAP smear tests on unmarried women, even if their doctors have advised them to undergo the test.

Despite overwhelming evidence that shows that vasectomies are faster, cheaper and safer than tubectomies when a family decides to stop having more children, it is often the woman who undergoes a tubectomy.

All of this clearly shows that women do not have autonomy over their own bodies, and decisions around reproductive health are taken by other people. It is thus hypocritical to assume that India does better that other nations in upholding the reproductive rights of women. Despite a reasonably liberal MTP Act, women in India too lack autonomy over our bodies, and we too are vulnerable to social and medical systems that are skewed against women.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Stand up. Speak up. Show up

 [I wrote this in 2019. That was the year when I stopped waiting for ‘someone else’ to do what had to be done. Looking back, I have continued to redeem that pledge I made to myself.]

Last year, on my birthday, I promised myself that I would accomplish three things before I completed another revolution around the sun. I decided that I would learn a new language, get my Open Water certification and start on and complete one large craft project. I failed miserably in two, and barely made much headway with the third.

After struggling to fit the Open Water certification into my schedule, I put it aside for another day. I do still hope to get it someday, but when that will be, I cannot tell. [2022: paused indefinitely, but not yet abandoned.]

The crafting project didn’t ever go beyond the planning stage, though I did put in some effort into learning new techniques which I might apply in the future. [2022: I am not sure I even remember what the project was, though I still have stashes of craft supplies.]

For a couple of weeks, my Urdu lessons progressed well, till I reached a stage when I could make out parts of words in hoardings. But then the complexity got to me, and I stopped. Not gave up, not yet. But put on indefinitely pause. [2022: I made progress here.]

I should be disappointed because I fared so badly on all the three big tasks I set for myself; yet I am not. Because though I missed on on these smaller things, I did well on the Big Thing. The thing that I had chosen as the cornerstone of my life sometime during the course of the year-

‘Stand Up. Speak Up. Show Up.’

It was not easy. At times, it was actually pretty hard.

To stand up for what you know is right, even though almost everyone around you thinks otherwise. To risk antagonising family and friends who are living in a dimension very different from your own. To not let yourself be bullied into silence to keep relationships intact. 

To speak up is hard, when yours is a lonely voice. Staying silent is tempting when you know the hate that will be heaped on you for opening your mouth. Even if you know you are right, it is easy and tempting to attempt to negotiate an uneasy peace by staying silent..

To show up even when you believe that your presence doesn’t make a difference. To stand with a group of strangers holding a placard, to address that letter which may or may not be read, to speak to a stranger and try to convince them of what you are protesting for.

When your life is packed tight, and you don’t have the energy to ‘stand up, speak up, show up’, you can convince yourself that you are doing ‘enough’. That signing a petition on change(dot)org, or liking a post on Facebook is sufficient. That someone else can fight the battle you are too tired to take on. That you don’t have to be there doing everything.

But no matter what you do, it is never enough. Because there is so much to be done. So many battles to be fought, just to hold on to our heritage and ensure equal opportunities for all. Those battles will be fought. Because they must.

I am happy that to the best of my ability, I did stand up, speak up, show up. I could have done more, but at least I did as much as I could. And it counts for something. While I go around the sun again, I want to continue doing just that.

I also want to make more time for people; the people who matter, and the ones who need me. I want to spend more time with beauty; natural and man made. I want to continue living in joy.

And somewhere in all that, I hope I am also able to achieve the three things I promised myself last year.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

In case of Women's Safety, Life imitates Art

[First published in Women's Web

A young couple who were sitting on a bed, presumably kissing, pull apart when the door flings open and four friends walk into the room. “Shot mara lagta hai”, says one. “Haan maara”, replies the boy who is with the girl. “Ab hamari baari”, says the first, striding purposefully towards the girl. She stares in fear and horror till he reaches for a bottle of deodorant and sprays it on himself.

This advertisement has been telecast on prime-time television during cricket matches which are watched by millions of young people. One can argue, as many on and off social media have, that “nothing really happens”, but the intent is very clear. The word “shot” is clearly an innuendo for taking a shot at the girl, and the advertisement plays on ideas of gang rape. It plays on the deepest fears of women- while indulging in a consensual sexual activity, the last thing she wants is for her partners friends to barge in and take their turn with her.

On the same day when netizens took to twitter to protest against the advertisement, another terrifying incident from Hyderabad made headlines.

A 17 year old girl who was returning home from a party was gangraped by a group of teenagers who had either attended the same party, or who offered her a lift while she was waiting to get home. Though details of the crime have not been released, if CCTV footage is to be believed, the incident happened in daylight, and the victim was on familiar terms with at least one of the perpetrators. Clearly, she didn’t think she was in danger when she got into the car, or she would not have gone with them. Yet, not one, but multiple teenagers sexually assaulted her and the incident was so traumatic that she didn’t even realise it was rape till she spoke to trained social workers and counsellors a few days after the event.

There is a clear co-relation between the two incidents. Both involve teenagers- one female and five male. In both, there was some element of consent on the part of the girl, but the boys presumed that since she had consented to a bit, they had the right to do much more. The emotions portrayed by the girl in the advertisement would have been exactly the same as the girl experienced in the real life incident. The only difference is in the real life incident, the boys finished what was implied in the in advertisement.

The advertisement didn’t spring from a vacuum. It was conceptualised by someone in the creatives department of the advertising agency, approved by account management department and presented to the client. The client approved it. The script was written, the actors hired, the film shot and edited. Someone in the television network must have the seen the movie before airing it. Clearly a long chain of individuals, none of whom thought to call the advertisement out for the allusions that promote gang rape.

That the client, the advertising agency and the network knew exactly what they were implying is clear from the other advertisement for the same product. A young woman is pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket when four men come behind her, stand menacingly and say, “We are four and there is only one. So who will take the shot?”, before grabbing the bottle of deo and spraying it on themselves. A supermarket with it’s CCTV coverage should be a safe place for women, but there is palpable fear on the face of the woman- she is clearly terrified of what might happen to her when she steps out of the supermarket weighed down with shopping bags.

Both the advertisements certainly propagate the idea of gang rape. They play on the paralysing fear that grips women whenever they find themselves alone surrounded by men. In both advertisements, the remark of “taking a shot” is addressed to the woman, even if it eventually turns out that it is directed at a bottle of deo. The advertisements normalise making women feel unsafe and insecure, and they create an environment where men do not think it is wrong to “take a shot at a woman”.

In the real life case of the 17 year old who was gang raped, a section of people are indulging in victim blaming- why was she at the party, why was she alone, why did she get into a car with four boys, what was her relationship with them- but none of those questions are valid. Yes, she got into a car with four boys, but she could have been sexually assaulted in a cab also. Even if she was sharing a cab with another girl, one of them would have got off first, and the other would have been alone in the cab with a (male) driver. Even if she was in a relationship with one of the boys, that certainly does not give the other boys the right to sexually assault her. (Importantly, also, the age of consent for women is 18, which is a fact that many couples indulging in consensual sex ignore.)

That the gang rape happened in the manner in which it did is proof that the culture of rape has been normalised to an extent that men think it is their right to make suggestive remarks at women, and to sexually harass them. Consent is something that is unknown to popular media- countless movies, TV shows, music videos, and plays have driven home the message that ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘no’, ‘No’ only means ‘try harder’

After receiving complaints from netizens, including many Bollywood personalities, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) took note and wrote, "Thank you for tagging us. The ad is in serious breach of the ASCI Code and is against public interest. We have taken immediate action and notified the advertiser to suspend the ad, pending investigation." Despite this, the advertisements are continuing to be aired.

While we know that the advertisements will eventually be taken down, the damage has already been done. One 17-year old has come forward and registered a case of gang-rape. How many more have suffered the same fate, but haven’t come forward we will never know. Until equally strong measures are taken to counter this narrative in unequivocal terms, women will continue living under the fear of sexual harassment or worse.

 

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Is Women's Sport more accepting of homosexuality?

[First published in Women's Web]

“Our warmest congratulations to Katherine Brunt & Nat Sciver who got married over the weekend” tweeted England Cricket, the official home of all of the England Cricket teams on Twitter. The two all-rounders who were a part of the team that lifted the World Cup in 2017 and reached the Finals this year, have been a couple for over 5 years, and announced their engagement before the pandemic struck and derailed their plans for a 2020 wedding.

While there were a large number of people who were genuinely happy for the couple, a large part of subcontinent Twitter, quite predictably, had a meltdown. Comments ranged from the innocuous sounding, “both got married on the same day? Where are the husbands?” to the “How they'll have babies?” which presumes that the only purpose of marriage is procreation. There were comments which could have been just smart word play- “Please tell me there was a slip cordon for the bouquet” or “Well, someone certainly bowled a maiden over” (though technically both did)- or may have hinted at worse.

But a large majority of comments (thankfully hidden) were extremely homophobic. The couple were deemed “ugly” and their sex called “unnatural”. They were told that they were sinners and that they would go to hell. There were the comments on how they wanted to convert innocent children to homosexuality, and of how parents should be extremely careful before letting their young daughters play a sport. There were also the comments which spoke of how both of them needed a few nights with “proper” man to sort them out.

This, unfortunately, is the kind of hate all homosexual couples attract. Though homosexuality has been legalised in India, it is still frowned upon and common notion is that it is something that can be “put right”. Lesbian couples, particularly, attract a very different kind of hate from cis-het men who deliberately misconstrue it as “rejecting men”, and also secretly worry about how their position might be eroded if women band together and shut them out.

The subcontinent is known for its homophobia, so it is not a surprise that there are no openly lesbian cricketers from these countries. However, England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have a large number of openly lesbian or bisexual cricketers. It is hard to believe that it was barely a decade back, in 2013, that the Australian cricketing great Alex Blackwell became the first person to come out as openly lesbian. At that time, she had been dating England’s Lynsey Askew for several years, and they got married to each other in 2015.

Following Blackwell coming out as lesbian, many other cricketers did too, so much that senior women cricketers were accused of predatory behaviour, and the presumption became that if you played international cricket there was a high probability that you were either lesbian or bisexual. This, however, is just another manifestation of homophobia. You can no longer “convert” a person to homosexuality than you can “cure” a person of homosexuality.

While there are many lesbian couples in international cricket- Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Niekerk (South Africa), Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu (New Zealand), Lizelle Lee and Tanja Cronje (South Africa), Maddy Green and Liz Perry (New Zealand), Rachael Haynes and Leah Poulton (Australia) to name just a few- there are no gay couples playing international cricket.

Football throws up similar statistics. In the 2018 World Cup, none of the players identified as gay. However in the 2019 World Cup, 38 of the 552 women identified as either lesbian or bisexual. Is this because professional sport is an attractive career for lesbians, or because professional sportswomen who are homosexual feel more comfortable coming out? People who have tried to study this say that it is more likely the latter. Homosexuality is frowned upon in male locker rooms, but not in female locker rooms. Heterosexual women cricketers have said, “I don’t feel uncomfortable walking into a change room knowing that most of my teammates are lesbians.” With men, however, there is the pressure to conform to the heterosexual norm, which could be the reason for the marked difference in numbers of homosexual and bisexual sportspersons in team sports. The fact that there is only one (retired) international level cricketer who openly identifies as gay might also be a factor in ensuring people who are bisexual or gay remain in the closet.

 

How will they have babies, is a question easily answered. Adoption is an obvious route that lesbian couples can take, but IVF makes it possible for them to have a biological child also. After New Zealand cricketers Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu got married in 2017, Satterthwaite who always wanted to have a child chose to become pregnant. The couple welcomed their first child in January 2020, and in the process, she also became the first cricketer to benefit from New Zealand’s maternity leave provision which allowed her to earn her retainer without needing to train or play with the team. The baby travelled with the couple to the World Cup, where, in their words, the baby had “15 aunties” who were happy to pitch in with babysitting duties. All of this points to greater inclusion and acceptance of lesbian couples in the New Zealand team, which will hopefully percolate to other teams too.

Are we likely to see a lesbian cricketer come out about her sexuality in India? It is only recently that homosexuality has been legalised in India, and even today homosexual marriages are not allowed. More importantly, society does not accept homosexuality, and even people who have come out to their families do not talk about it openly. In such a climate, a cricketer could also legitimately fear that if she comes out as homosexual, it may affect her chances of being selected for the team. However, with athlete Dhuti Chand coming out about her sexuality, the conversation has started, and one hopes that in time, it will spread to team sports too. However, a lot of headway needs to be made in accepting homosexuality before that day will come.

One can hope that one day, an Indian will write a post similar to this one-

“Disgraceful, shocking & plain wrong! What self respecting cricketers get married during the season? Seriously though two England greats. Congratulations”

A couple falling in love and getting married is a wonderful thing. We should cherish that.


Saturday, May 21, 2022

Vengeance is not the same as Justice

 [Ten police officers who had killed 4 young men arrested for the rape and murder of Hyderabad doctor in an "encounter" have been found "guilty of concocting their story, and were to be charged with murder." What are the ramifications, I wonder in this article first published in Women's Web.]

December 29, 2019 was a Friday no different from any other. I was running late so had no time to read the newspaper. On the way to work, I logged onto to Twitter to catch up with the news. The first thing I saw was the breaking story on the horrific gang rape and murder of the 26 year old doctor on the outskirts of Hyderabad.

The brutality of the crime left me cold, as did the fact that it could have happened to anyone. The victim (who’s name was then made public, but was subsequently called #Disha for anonymity) was returning home from work on her two-wheeler- she could have been someone I knew. The route she took was one that I had taken often, especially at night. #Disha’s charming face and attractive smile contrasted sharply with the photographs of her charred body. We mourned her senseless loss.

As more details emerged, we all realised just how vulnerable we were while going about our daily life. Any of us could have developed a puncture on a highway, any of us would have pulled up at a toll plaza and called relative or friend when we felt unsafe. We have all been in similar situations. But #Disha was unlucky enough to be gangraped and brutally murdered.

The weekend passed in a haze. We mourned the senseless death of a woman who had her entire life ahead of her. Her smiling face reminded us that better lighting, more frequent patrolling and greater monitoring of CCTV cameras may have saved her life. We were shaken.


That Sunday, I attended a candlelight vigil to protest against her killing and to demand action. I went because I thought I owed it to her to pay my respects. I hoped that the gathering would get a conversation started on how to create systems that women could access in an emergency. But more than anything else, I wanted to be a part of the collective grief.

What I saw there shook me to the core. While I felt grief and sorrow, the overwhelming emotion was anger. The poster I carried said - “The Dead cannot seek Justice. The Living have the Duty to seek it for them.” But it was not Justice that the public wanted- they wanted Vengeance. All the people who spoke demanded an “encounter”. The crowd set up a chant saying “We want Encounter”.

Clearly the Police was listening to the public. Within days, four youth were arrested in connection with the gang rape and murder, and on December 6, 2019, all four were killed while allegedly attempting to escape while recreating the crime. An Encounter. The bloodlust of the public was satiated. The police received bouquets for ensuring the case was closed in a speedy manner. Everyone moved on, satisfied that ‘Justice was served.’

But was it? Isn’t there a difference between Justice and Vengeance? 

Vengeance is emotional, and often desires bloodshed. Justise is about righting a wrong. Vengeance is about getting even, Justice is about ensuring that the rules that govern society are upheld. Vengeance is an act of vindictiveness, Justice of vindication.

Justice would have been served by ensuring the case was fast tracked. By enabling the police to gather enough evidence to get the courts convict the perpetrators. By empowering the courts to convict and sentence the guilty. The family of the victim and the society as a whole would have found closure if the guilty were brought to book and were given the punishment due to them. 

Instead, the accused were killed by the Police in what was euphemistically called an “Encounter”.

A Commission of Inquiry set up by the Supreme Court to probe into the incident tabled the report, where it clearly states that “the accused were deliberately fired upon with the intent to cause their death and with the knowledge that the firing will invariably result in the death of the deceased suspects.” The report further advices that murder charges be brought against the policemen involved in the incident.

Far from bringing closure, the ‘Encounter’ has created a new cycle of violence. Four unemployed youth from marginalised communities, of which three were minors, lost their lives on the suspicion of being the perpetrators of the crime. Four families were destroyed and the family members ostracised in order to satisfy the bloodlust of the public. We will never know whether these were actually the perpetrators or not. We will never be able to get rid of the suspicion that the actual perpetrator has escaped and may repeat the crime against some other young woman.

If murder charges are brought against the police officers, many more families will be affected. None of that was the public wanted when it screamed for instance justice.

There will still be people who say that in a nation where Justice is always delayed and often denied, the public cannot be blamed for demanding instant justice. This is particularly so after horrific crimes against women, where people believe that an equally gruesome punishment will deter others from committing similar crimes in future. That, however, is not the case. Before committing a pre-planned crime, a criminal takes two factors into account- the magnitude of punishment and the probability of being punished. Merely increasing the punishment is not enough; crime will be brought down only is the probability of being punished is made much greater. Today, most crimes are not even registered because victims fear accessing the police system, of the crimes that are reported very few actually make it to the courts; courts delay the hearings and it is often years before the sentence is passed. Given the low probability of being punished, very few are deterred from committing a crime by the legal system.

If the probability of being punished is made higher, crimes will automatically come down. This can be done with better systems- better patrolling and more responsive helplines to bring down the crime; sympathetic policemen, legal aid and counselling to encourage victims to come forward to report the crime; efficient courts and time bound closure of cases to ensure speedy and assured justice. Once these measures are implemented, crimes against women will start going down.

Instead of seeking vengeance after horrific crimes, the public should push for faster and better judicial resolutions. That is the best tribute we can pay to the victims.


Monday, May 16, 2022

Can Rapists Be Allowed To Go Free After Marrying The Survivor?

 [No law in the country recognises enabling the rapist to walk free after marrying the survivor. However, in reality, it is something that families and communities often push for. First published in Women's Web]

In the same week where the Delhi High Court on Wednesday, 11 May, saw a split decision on the constitutionality of the marital rape exception, another equally reactionary decision was handed by a divisional bench of the Supreme Court when they set aside the conviction and sentence of a man who had repeatedly raped his 14 year old niece

The facts of the case are simple. The accused, K Dhandapani, enticed his 14 year old niece with the promise of marriage and raped her several times. The family came to know of the offence when the girl became pregnant, and a case was lodged against him under the Protection of Child from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. After trying his case, in 2018, the Sessions Court found him guilty on all three counts, and convicted him and sentenced him to 10 years rigorous imprisonment. The accused appealed to the Madras High Court which upheld the conviction and the sentence in 2019.

The girl gave birth in 2017, before the case came up in court. Despite the pending case against him, he continued to have sexual relations with the girl, and she gave birth to her second child at the age of 17.

K Dhandapani filed an appeal with the Supreme Court stating that he had started a physical relationship with the 14 year old child on promise of marrying her and since he subsequently married her and was taking care of her and their two children, the case should be dismissed.

The counsel appearing for the State in the Supreme Court, argued that since the girl was only 14 years old at the time of the first offence, and since both the children were born before she turned 18, the marriage was not legal, and that it might well have been entered into only for the purpose of escaping punishment. After listening to the testament of the rape survivor where she insisted that she was indeed happily married, Justices L. Nageshwara Rao and B.R. Gavai ruled that the Court cannot “shut its eyes to the ground reality and disturb the happy family”, and therefore set aside the conviction and sentence.

This case sets several dangerous precedents

POCSO Act was brought on to protect minors from a broad range of sexual crimes ranging from penetrative sexual assault to sexual harassment. The accused was convicted on three counts of penetrative sexual assault on a minor- (a) for making her pregnant, (b) for committing the act repeatedly, and (c) for committing it despite being a relative by blood- and given the nature of the crimes should be subject to the strongest punishment. Even in the appeal, the accused admitted his guilt, so there was no basis for dismissing the case.

The accused petitioned that he has subsequently married the girl, and so the case should be dismissed. At the time of pregnancy and delivery, the child was below the age of 18, which is the legal age of consent and marriage. Any marriage that may have taken place then is not legal, and therefore cannot be used to dismiss the order.

However, the most dangerous precedent is of the rapist using the offer of marriage to escape being punished for his crime. Once the court starts accepting this excuse, there is fear of it becoming a norm, and of rape survivors being coerced to marry the rapist in order to avoid the stigma of the rape and subsequent pregnancy.

Every rape survivor is subject to immense physical, mental and psychological trauma, but in a patriarchal society like India, rape is stigmatised to such an extent that the survivor is additionally made to feel that she has “lost her honour” by “allowing herself to be raped”. Playing on this fear of bringing dishonour upon herself and her family, the rapist often offers to marry the survivor, thereby reducing the stigma of pregnancy. The survivor is often coerced by the law enforcement agencies, the larger community and her own family into going through with the marriage, in order to reduce the stigma of pregnancy, even though it is in no way the fault of the survivor.

No law in the country recognises enabling the rapist to walk free after marrying the survivor. However, in reality, it is something that families and communities often push for. Once the match is formalised, the survivor drops the case, thereby enabling the accused and even convicted rapist to evade punishment.

While this takes place informally, by putting aside the conviction and punishment, the division bench of the Supreme Court has set a dangerous precedent which can be used by rapists in future to evade punishment. This will offer greater impetus to the rapists to put pressure on the survivor and her family to “reclaim her lost honour”, by taking up the offer to marry the rapist. While the rape survivor may escape the stigma that clings to her through no fault of hers, she will be forced into a permanent conjugal relationship with the man who caused her immense trauma.

Many individuals and organisations who work with rape survivors have said that it is inhuman and unacceptable to coerce the rape survivor into marrying the perpetrator. They recognise that such marriages may continue to be physically and mentally abusive, and far from getting justice, the survivor may end up in a situation from which there is no escape for them. They have called for strong legislation that declares such marriages illegal- though the rape survivor is free to marry anyone she chooses, her marriage to the rapist cannot be used by him to seek a reduction in punishment.

What can be done to protect the rights of the rape survivor in such cases?

In the absence of adequate legislation, however, communities will continue to believe that by offering to marry the survivor, the rapist is atoning for his mistake, and the survivor will be coerced to accept the offer.

In the short term, it is imperative to define strict processes to track the marriage for a few years to ensure that the marriage was not entered into only to evade punishment. Women’s organizations should be tasked with speaking to the rape survivor to ascertain that she is entering into the marriage through her own will, and not because she is being forced to do so. More importantly, there need to be follow up meetings to monitor her mental and physical well being.

In the long term, what is needed is to provide sufficient financial and emotional support to the rape survivor to ensure her proper rehabilitation and to enable her to live an independent life. This will reduce her economic and emotional dependence on her family and her community, and will empower her to take decisions which are best for herself.

In parallel, law enforcement personnel should be adequately trained, so they recognise that the best interests of the rape survivor can be met, not by marriage to her rapist, but by ensuring timely justice.

Most importantly, there should be a concentrated awareness campaign to shift the blame from the rape survivor to the rapist. As long as the woman continues to be blamed for something that is not her fault, society will continue to consider marriage as a viable option to evade punishment.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Instead of banning abortions, let's stop unwanted pregnancies

 [First published in Women's Web]

The US Supreme Court, through the landmark Roe v/s Wade judgement, protected the liberty of a pregnant woman to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. With the Supreme Court now voting to strike down the 49 year old decision, the state is once again denying women the right to take decisions which impact their bodies and their lives.

The “Pro Life” faction argues that life is sacred and therefore abortions must be disallowed. Despite all the emotional and physical trauma that a pregnant woman might go through on account of an unwanted pregnancy, they argue that the life of the foetus is more important than any suffering that the woman might go through, and so abortions should not be allowed. However, what they conveniently ignore is the fact that easiest way to prevent abortions is to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and if they were serious about ending abortions, what they should actually do is to focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Let’s unpick that. Why do women get pregnant? Women get pregnant when men ejaculate inside them. Sometimes, the ejaculation is consensual, but when the man ejaculates despite the woman not being physically, financially or emotionally ready to become a mother, he causes an unwanted pregnancy. Simply put, the best way to stop unwanted pregnancies from happening is for men to stopped ejaculating inside women without their consent. This can be done in either of two painless ways- the man can either use a condom, or pull out before ejaculation.

If preventing an unwanted pregnancy is as simple and painless as using a condom everytime you have sex, why then do all men not use it, except when they are trying to get pregnant? That is apparently because condoms marginally reduce the pleasure of sex and men do not want to compromise on that. So essentially, when a man has sex without a condom, what he is saying is that for a few extra moments of heightened pleasure he is willing to risk getting his partner pregnant. Clearly the man is either unaware of the physical and emotional discomfort of pregnancy, the expense of child bearing and child rearing and the opportunities his partner will miss out on because of motherhood- or, he just doesn’t care.

Essentially, therefore, by causing an unwanted pregnancy, the man is saying that he chooses a few moments of pleasure over something that will adversely impact the entire trajectory of his partner’s life. Yet, by not focussing on ending unwanted pregnancies, the “Pro Life” lobby enables such men to get away, and instead punishes the woman who is already a victim of the selfishness and irresponsibility of the man.

If a woman doesn’t want to get pregnant, why can’t she use birth control, the “pro lifers” may ask.

More women would certainly use oral contraceptives if they didn’t have a long list of harmful side effects, ranging from nausea and headaches to weight gain and unnatural pigmentation. For lack of a better alternative, women who lead a regular and active sex life may still consider using oral contraceptives. However, it requires daily use and does not allow any disruptions and therefore is not always fool proof.

More importantly, given the fact that it needs to be taken daily, and has a long list of side effects, oral contraceptives do not make much sense for a woman who does not have a regular sex life. You cannot simply pop a pill the morning before you are intending to have sex, and expect it to work- you should be taking it regularly so it syncs with the natural ovulation cycle. While there are emergency contraceptive pills which can be had after an unexpected ejaculation, the efficacy in preventing an unwanted pregnancy is low. These are best used only as a fall-back option in case of failure of other contraceptives.

Other birth control measures which act as physical barriers to the passage of semen also make sense only if the woman is leading an active sex life. More importantly, since most of them can be used only under the supervision of a medical practitioner, it is extremely hard for an unmarried woman to brave societal judgement and access them.

Condoms, thus, remain, the most foolproof and easiest way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. If we are serious about stopping abortions, the best way is to promote the use of condoms.

When we know that the use of condoms prevents unwanted pregnancies, why then is its usage not more widespread? The simple reason is that it requires men to take action, but the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy are borne entirely by the woman, not by the man, so there is no incentive for him to take precautions.

Unless the couple are in a relationship, the man may not even be aware of the fact that his irresponsible ejaculation caused a pregnancy. While an unwanted pregnancy can wreck havoc in the life of the woman, the man does not face any consequences at all. It is the woman who suffers the physical trauma of pregnancy and an abortion. If she is forced to bear the child to term, she needs to put up with the physical discomfort for nine months, it is her lifestyle that is curtailed and she is the one who needs to , and has to bear with an abortion. , it is her lifestyle that gets curtailed and she who is judged. She bears the pain of childbirth, and once born, she faces either the emotional trauma of putting the child up for adoption or ends up having to build her life around a newborn child. During all this, the man who has contributed 50% of the DNA may not even be aware that the intercourse led to a pregnancy.

Since men seem unwilling to use condoms, is there any other way to prevent irresponsible ejaculations? The simplest way is through mandatory vasectomies as soon as a man attains puberty. Vasectomies are safe, reversible, and have virtually no side effects except soreness for a couple of days. It is certainly much safer than oral contraceptives with a wide range of side effects, and pregnancy with all the attendant physical and mental trauma.

When a man is ready to have a baby with his partner, the vasectomy can be reversed, and redone once the child birthing phase is over. By preventing 100% unwanted pregnancies, this can virtually eliminate abortions. While there will certainly be men who complain about the sheer number of “unnecessary” medical procedures this will entail, isn’t it is much better than unwanted pregnancies and all the attendant physical and medical issues associated with it?

Seeking a ban on abortions is extremely easy because it involves policing women’s bodies and their choices- something society has been doing for generations. What is much harder is finding a foolproof way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It is necessary to drive the point home that while women bear the consequences of unwanted pregnancies, it is men who are responsible for the pregnancies and should take accountability to prevent them.

If people genuinely want to prevent abortions, the conversation must shift from restricting what a woman can do, to holding men accountable.

None of the birth control options available to women is fool proof and/ or safe, but both condoms and vasectomies are. Before telling women that they cannot have abortions, lawmakers should focus on men and on preventing unwanted pregnancies.

As the joke goes, if men got pregnant, abortions would be available in ATMs. Once men are held accountable for unwanted pregnancies, new and better birth control will certainly be developed, and the number of abortions will fall drastically. All it needs is for men to be held accountable.

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