Ipas Development Foundation (IDF) is working in India since 2000 to facilitate women’s access to safe and legal abortion options by strengthening the public health system to provide safe and quality abortion services. But why is it such an important issue when our country is grappling with countless public health challenges? Here are some data to ponder upon. One pregnant woman dies every two hours in India due to complications related to unsafe abortion. And even if she survives, she may get inflicted with myriad complications, both physical and mental. In other words, chances of her being caught in a state of morbidity are too high. India legalized abortion in 1971 (Medical Termination of Pregnancy or MTP Act), putting the onus of decision-making on the woman concerned, but people are still largely unaware of it and the price of ignorance is being paid by our mothers with their lives! Add to it our socio-cultural environment that is, almost by default, biased towards procreation from a so-called high moral ground. But this is utterly counterproductive and it also deters people from seeking any information about abortion or help or services.
We have been campaigning to spread awareness about safe abortion with IDF in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra since 2008. The campaigns are designed around key messages like ‘abortion is legal’, the legally acceptable gestation period is up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, and free abortion services are available at public health facilities from specially trained doctors. In May-June 2017, we concluded two parallel campaigns, one of 720 street theatre shows covering 17 districts of Uttar Pradesh and another of 200 such shows in three districts of West Bengal.
But horror stories from the field keep coming: A woman facing a life-threatening situation from excessive bleeding or septicemia after an abortion gone wrong because of untrained hands in inadequate infrastructure; a pregnant widow denied the permission to abort her child despite the fact that she would be sucked into the vicious cycle of poverty with the newborn; an attempted self-induced abortion by a woman by consuming gun powder almost costing her life…. and all this because these women are either unaware that abortion is legal or that such services are easily available or because of the sheer fear of societal backlash! We continue coming across young women with permanently damaged bodies and compromised health owing to too early, too frequent and too many pregnancies. Knowledge and practice of contraception and family planning continue to be poor. The low social status of women and lack of decision-making power keep our women vulnerable.
However, our public health system is getting better and our public outreach and engagement on the issue is also progressing. The ground realities are indeed grim now but, with planned and consistent efforts from all quarters, things can change for the better. The enthusiasm of women and men in even the most marginalized communities and their appreciation of our outreach effort underscore this fact. If a one-hour campaign at one venue can result in 94% correct responses, it is reason enough to continue our initiative!!