In early December of last year, I participated in a three-day Youth Advocacy Institute (YAI) organized by Asia Safe Abortion Partnership (ASAP). The institute, which was the 3rd of its kind, was held in Mumbai, India and grouped together participants from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, The Philippines, and Lebanon. ASAP is a network that works to promote, protect, and advance women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health in Asia by reducing unsafe abortion and its complications and where it is legal, by promoting access to comprehensive safe abortion services. The goal of their Youth Advocacy Institute’s is to train and sensitize young adults to have an understanding on safe abortion as a gender, sexual, and reproductive right, as well as a human rights issue.
The sessions included topics such as gender and patriarchy in relation to safe abortion issues, reproductive and sexual rights as human rights, feminism and SRHR, some key medical facts and stats, and, of course, a lot of training on advocacy skills and techniques.
To be honest, I was there mostly for the medical information on reproductive and sexual health and rights as I, the activist that I am, thought I didn’t need much work on my political beliefs. I knew safe abortion was important, I knew why it was important to me, and I knew that regardless of what people think safe abortion is an undeniable right that women should have access to. I knew about the evils of patriarchy and sexism, and a bit about how they operate within the medical field, especially on women and female bodies. I was shocked to realize that I was not, however, ready to articulate this from a rights-based approach. I knew these things, I really believed in them and held them dear, and I just did not know what to do about it. It was very difficult for me to localize sexual and reproductive rights within human rights and to link health to the struggle for social justice and respect for human dignity. A struggle I am loyal to.
I did get my dose of medical information on safe abortion. I learnt about conception, contraception, and safe methods of medical and surgical abortion. I learnt how pregnancies occur and how they can be prevented. I also learnt that prevention is not always effective and that throwing condoms and IUDs will never result in safe abortions not being a necessary right. I learnt why we advocate for ‘safe’ abortions in a world where women often have to resort to unsafe, secretive, and sometimes, fatal abortions. According to the World Health Organization, unsafe abortion accounts for 12 percent of all maternal, or pregnancy-related, deaths in Asia and claims the lives of 38,000 women each year. Ensuring access to safe abortion services is then an essential step to reducing maternal morbidity and mortality.
To my surprise, I also learnt that my feminist-activist-radical opinions still needed a lot of work.
The first day of the institute ended with an exercise that I will never forget. It was a “values clarification” exercise, where we were given statements to which we had to either agree or disagree, but not be neutral. The point was to equip us with ways to respond to anti-choice arguments. One of the statements was: “women who have an abortion are ending a life”. Most of us—excited about our pro-choice stance—disagreed and were shocked to see that most ASAP staff and youth champions from previous institutes agreed. They explained to us that, biologically speaking, a termination of pregnancy really is an ending of cell life but that our focus should be on the life of the pregnant woman. I found this exercise excellent in that it allowed me to reassess my beliefs and where these come from and to think of better ways to respond to anti-choice propaganda.
I learnt that, historically, images of the female reproductive system were made to look like an inside out image of male reproductive organs. The clitoris was, of course, completely left out from these images mostly produced by men. It wasn’t until the introduction of feminist drawings into medical books that female pleasure and sexuality were recognized.
Most importantly, I learnt about restrictive laws in different countries, especially our Asian ones. I realized that no matter what the law is, women’s bodily autonomy is always controlled, monitored, restricted, and lied to in one way or another. But I also learnt that there is slow, uneasy, progress: that despite restrictive laws immediately affecting access to safe abortions (not the number of unsafe abortions), there are women around the world who are shaking things up. Nepal, for example, has made access to safe abortion legal in 2002 and it was beautiful to hear Nepali women tell us about their struggle to make it happen and to keep improving it. Despite the legislation to make abortion legal passing in 2002, according to a 2013 study published in PLoS one, the real decline in maternal mortality happened only after an expansion included midlevel providers, second trimester training, and medical abortion into the safe abortion program. And yet, the narratives I heard talked about how, faced with stigma and shame, many Nepali women still choose unsafe and secretive abortions; while some others simply do not have access to safe and legal abortion services. That is to say that even when a country does legalize safe abortion (a big win that should be celebrated!), women are still faced with stigma, shame, and…patriarchy. Another example of this is India or the USA, where despite somewhat less restrictive laws, access is still limited and women’s bodies still shamed and controlled.
Lastly, I also learnt some skills that I did not expect to acquire at the institute. I was taught how to make a short video for advocacy, how to use social media, the relation of technology to feminism (via Shivani Gupta from Feminist Approach to Technology). We looked at some of the visuals about abortion on the Internet and noticed the type of messages directed at women were very different from those directed at men and discussed the use of women in advertising: the good wife, the housekeeper, the mother, etc. We thought about ways to change that, to hopefully some day takeover the Internet!
I also listened. I listened to ASAP’s story, to Samsara’s story, to the stories of endless women who have either sought safe abortions or have worked tirelessly to find ways to provide them. I left the institute with those stories and a want to share them. I still remember each narrative that was shared. Although sad, I find it powerful. It has humbled me and empowered me and gives me, still today, courage and hope to stay loyal to my struggle. A struggle I now know much more about.