Indian feminists applaud her right to abortion, but it doesn’t extend to Dalit women | Shreeja Rao

know about Indian feminists applaud her right to abortion, but it doesn’t extend to Dalit women | Shreeja Rao

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yesIn my sophomore law class when Roe v Wade was overturned, I watched young women salute India’s abortion law. My heart broke a little more every time my fellow “feminists” praised the law that protects their reproductive rights.

For a movement that claims to represent all women, Indian feminism is a colossal failure. It persistently overlooks the women of my community. Can they afford a safe abortion? Are able to choose contraceptive measures? Do they have access to reproductive health services?

I was born into India’s historically marginalized Dalit community (previously known as “untouchables”) of 200 million people. Doubly oppressed by caste and gender, Dalit women suffer the worse health outcomes in the country, lack access to wWater and sanitation, and are the more poor and more vulnerable to sexual violence

India’s caste inequalities manifest in health care. Dalit women live, on average, 15 years less than women from higher castes. Even today, reproductive rights remain a remote luxury that many Dalit women cannot afford.

India's caste inequalities manifest in health care.
India’s caste inequalities manifest in health care. Photograph: lakshmiprasad S/Alamy

But my classmates aren’t the only ones discussing reproductive rights without reference to the millions of Dalit women who fight for access that others take for granted.

When the constitutional right to abortion was revoked in the US, upper caste feminists expressed their gratitude online for the Indian law that provides it at will.

the Medical Interruption of Pregnancy Law Allows interruption up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. Although considered progressive, it obscures the reality of countless women in my community who experience reproductive healthcare very differently than what is enshrined in law and available to upper caste women.

Abortions carry a high price in India. Even in government hospitals, surgical abortions can cost 15,500 rupees (£160) while medical abortions cost 1,500 rupees (£16). These are exorbitantly high rates for most Dalit women who earn around £1 per week.

Babita Valmiki, a Dalit woman, collects human excrement from dry latrines by hand in the state of Uttar Pradesh and earns about £3 a month.

She works as a manual scavenger, an occupation prohibited 10 years ago but which continues throughout the country. Of 1.2 million hand pickers in India, 95% to 98% are Dalit women.

Babita was not paid for her three pregnancies and was repeatedly denied reproductive care by government hospitals for 11 years because of her caste.

“Who will treat an untouchable?” she says.

Using private hospitals has forced her to borrow Rs 40,000, which is 133 times her monthly income.

Babita’s story is commonplace among Dalit women. These disparities are made worse when abortions are sought.

In India, 67% of abortions are unsafe India Rural Health Statistics 2019-20 showed a 70% deficit in the number of obstetricians and gynecologists in rural India, where 77% of Dalits in the country Live.

Despite the shortage of obstetricians and gynecologists in India, the root of unsafe abortion lies in accessibility; the fact that Dalit women cannot communicate with those doctors in the first place.

A A 2015 study showed that 78% of all abortions that year they were carried out outside health establishments. Rihana Mansuri, an activist working in Uttar Pradesh, argues that this disproportionately affects Dalit women, who bear the brunt of unsafe abortions in India.

“Public health centers often deny Dalit women reproductive care because of their caste. They are forced to rely on abortions performed in unsafe circumstances,” says Mansuri.

Dalit feminist Riya Singh says: “Until the mainstream feminist movement, dominated by upper castes, addresses the inequalities Dalit women face, it will remain exclusionary and a reflection of patriarchy and caste itself.”

In the 1940s, Sulochanabai Dongre, a female Dalit leader, was the first to initiate and lead the national discourse on birth control and abortion rights. However, due to caste elimination, her efforts were hijacked by upper caste feminists and then the world forgot about them.

But things are slowly changing. the Social Education Center for Rural Women (Ruwsec), in the state of Tamil Nadu, is owned and operated by Dalit women and offers low-cost and safe medical abortions.

Dr. Subha Sri, an obstetrician on Ruwsec’s advisory board and former director of her clinic, says there are few organizations like hers that work specifically on Dalit women’s reproductive health.

While private hospitals in the state can charge up to Rs 15,000 for medical abortions, the Ruwsec clinic offers the procedure for Rs 500.

Community-led organizations like Ruwsec are key to overcoming barriers to reproductive health care. In addition, inclusion training is essential for medical professionals in the sector.

While the strength of women in my community gives me hope for an undivided future for reproductive rights, castism in public life leaves me unsure of structural change, which must come from the women’s movement.

It is time for Dalit women’s voices to focus on feminist conversations about bodily autonomy, which must no longer be at our expense, but through our leadership.

  • Shreeja Rao is a Dalit woman and law student who writes on topics including gender, health, education, and politics.

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