Feminists in India applaud their abortion rights, but they don’t apply to Dalit women | Shreeja Rao

sWhen I was in my sophomore law class when Roe v Wade was destroyed, I saw young women salute India’s abortion laws. My heart broke a little more every time my “feminist” classmates flatter the law protecting their reproductive rights.

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

I was born in India’s historically marginalized Dalit (formerly known as ‘untouchables’) community of 200 million people. Doubly oppressed by caste and gender, Dalit women have the worst health problems in the country, lack access to water and sanitation, and are the poorest and most vulnerable to sexual violence.

Caste inequality in India manifests itself in health care. Dalit women live an average of 15 years less than upper-caste women. Even today, reproductive rights remain a distant luxury that many Dalit women cannot afford.

Caste inequality in India manifests itself in health care.
Caste inequality in India manifests itself in health care. Photo: lakshmiprasad S/Alamy

But my classmates aren’t the only ones discussing reproductive rights without referring to the millions of Dalit women struggling to gain 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When the constitutional right to abortion was revoked in the US, upper-caste feminists expressed their gratitude online for Indian law providing it at will.

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act allows termination of pregnancy up to 20 weeks. Although it is considered progressive, it obscures the reality of countless women in my community who experience reproductive health care very differently from what is enshrined in law, and available to upper-caste women.

Abortions have 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 exorbitant allowances for the majority of Dalit women who earn around £1 a week.

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

She works as a scavenger, a profession that was banned 10 years ago, but is still practiced nationwide. Of the 1.2 million scavengers in India, 95% to 98% are Dalit women.

Babita was unpaid throughout her three pregnancies and was repeatedly denied reproductive care by government hospitals for 11 years because of her caste.

“Who will handle an untouchable?” she says.

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

Babita’s story is commonplace among Dalit women. These inequalities are exacerbated when seeking abortions.

In India, 67% of abortions are unsafe. The Indian Rural Health Statistics 2019-20 showed a 70% shortfall in the number of obstetricians and gynecologists in rural India, which is home to 77% of the country’s Dalits.

Despite India’s shortage of obstetricians and gynecologists, the root of unsafe abortion lies in accessibility; the fact that Dalit women can’t reach those doctors at all.

A 2015 study showed that 78% of all abortions that year were performed outside of health facilities. Rihana Mansuri, an activist who works in Uttar Pradesh, argues that this has a disproportionate impact on Dalit women, who are the victims of unsafe abortion in India.

“Public health care facilities often refuse reproductive care for Dalit women because of their caste. They are forced to depend on abortions performed under unsafe conditions,” Mansuri said.

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

In the 1940s, Sulochanabai Dongre, a female Dalit leader, was the first to initiate and lead the national debate on contraception and abortion rights. However, in the erasure of the caste, her efforts were appropriated by upper-caste feminists and then forgotten by the world.

But things are slowly changing. The Rural Women’s Social Education Center (Ruwsec), in the state of Tamil Nadu, is led and run by Dalit women and offers cheap, safe medical abortions.

dr. Subha Sri, an obstetrician on Ruwsec’s advisory board and former director of the clinic, says there are few organizations like theirs that deal specifically with the reproductive health of Dalit women.

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

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

While the strength of the women in my community makes me hopeful for an undivided future for reproductive rights, the caste system in public life leaves me unsure about a structural change — one that must come from within the women’s movement.

It is time for the voices of Dalit women to be centered in feminist conversations about bodily autonomy – no longer at the expense of us, but through our leadership.

  • Shreeja Rao is a law student and Dalit woman who writes on topics such as gender, health, education and policy

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