New Pandemic, Old Issues: 'ASAP Conversation During Covid' (ACDC) with Manisha Gupte

Our guest today is Dr. Manisha Gupte who has been a part of the Indian feminist movement since the mid- 70s. In 1987 after living in a rural area for five years, she co-founded the ‘Mahila Sarwangan Utkarsh Mandal’ (MASUM) which is a rural feminist organisation that works on very intersectional components because it is a community-based organisation. She has had a long association with ASAP, right from the first Youth Advocacy institute that was held in Mumbai.

These are the highlights of an episode from the ASAP Covid19 conversation series where we invite guests to have conversations with us around the current situation, the pandemic and especially in relation to the communities we work with, and how it has affected the people specially in relation to abortion rights and larger SRHR access. The interview was conducted by Nandini Mazumder, Assistant Coordinator, ASAP.

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Transcribed by Meera U.G, member ISAY, India, edited by Suchitra Dalvie

NM: Can you share a bit about the kind of issues and challenges that women are facing in the communities you work with? Although there is this whole discourse looking at COVID-19 as if it is bringing out new issues, we know that women were already facing many challenges even before the pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about that?

MG: As you said, what existed before the pandemic was not all great. There was structural violence, the biggest ones being of course patriarchy, class, heteronormativity, caste, able-bodism, majority vs minority politics, cultural nationalism, rise of fascism all over and neoliberal globalisation. So, all these existed even prior to the pandemic. In any such disaster there is a gendered impact also and I am very specifically going to focus on access to safe abortion in this conversation.

So what was the pathway that women chose or ‘had to choose’ or ‘had no choice’ when they got pregnant? First of all, they didn’t even want to get pregnant in the first place at that point of time. Second is how does the state view their pregnancy? How does the state view a pregnancy that is their third child after marriage? When it takes away your political rights, when it takes away your economic rights, how does the society see a pregnancy outside of marriage? How does a trans- man, somebody who was a woman but [you know] feels like a man, gets pregnant, what does he do with his body thereafter?

As per the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act the provider decides whether you can or you cannot terminate and there are some conditions prescribed.

Once somebody realises they are pregnant, the entire pathway to reach a safe abortion service sometimes can take two months, can take three months. A study that we did when I was part of a research with Cehat from 1994 to1997 women said I chose to have the abortion, the decision was mine. But actually the decision was anything but hers. The mother- in- law wanting to look after her daughter because she was coming back for childbirth or husband losing his job. So we need to realize that the women doesn’t just decide “Oh today let me go and have an abortion” and it is not such an easy decision…. she reaches that after back and forth, and back and forth, a lot more back than forth.

So even before the pandemic, what you found was that it was the boyfriend or the husband who was getting the condoms because premeditated sex for a girl, for a woman is even worse than actually having sex. This makes the girl not such a good woman especially in rural areas. So who gets the condom? The male gets the condom. Medical abortion pills not available. The male gets the Emergency contraception pills. Who takes her to the abortion service? Somebody else. You want to go as far away from home as possible, because you don’t want confidentiality to be breached.

This was the condition before the pandemic. And obviously, as we know it would be exacerbated in this covid 19 pandemic.

What are these women going to do once they go beyond the legal limit of abortion? Imagine the number of unwanted pregnancies or the unwanted deliveries that are going to take place next year. Imagine the burden and the stigma and the shame of all the women who didn’t want to carry this pregnancy to term.

NM: Thanks Manisha. I think that brings out a lot of the truth about the system and the systemic gaps that exists. You and other activists are working on this whole issue of abortion as an essential rights during the COVID-19, you know, as elective surgeries and hospitals are being suspended, hospitals are being emptied to prepare for the pandemic when it surges. So if you can tell us a bit about that?

MG: The Minister of Family-MoHFW said that abortion should be considered as part of the essential services and that probably is because many of us including ASAP, are involved in an advocacy campaign around the MTP amendment Bill 2020. As of now all access has been drastically affected because of the lockdown. Most private hospitals have just shut down. And despite all the push for privatization, it is actually the public hospitals which have stood up at this point. I think this is something that you should all remember that public health services, government health services need to be strengthened in our country.

The barriers always existed but now imagine in lockdown what happens and then to be sent back due to lack of facilities and then to go beyond the legal age limit for abortion. We have seen a spike in domestic violence throughout the world. There were 94000 calls to the child helpline in India in 11 days after lockdown started.

So you can imagine you know, we blow down the myth that women and children are safer at home! This pandemic has proved that it is not stranger danger, but it’s the people that you know and the people that you trust who are actually forcing you to have sex. Now women and children are cloistered within the home with their batterers and with their abusers, both physical and sexual. Can any neighbour or can anybody reach out to them due to the lockdown?

Besides coercion there is also consensual sex but the issue there is also about where the condoms are going to come from, especially if the sex is not premeditated. What happens to the pregnancy thereafter? Even before the pandemic MASUM had conducted a study in seven states and we found out that provider discrimination is high. The providers have their own sense about who ‘deserves’ to have an abortion or not and who ‘deserves’ to become a mother and not.

So sex workers, people who are living with HIV are not considered as worthy of being mothers and therefore they could have an abortion, but that’s also with extreme hostility, with extreme stigma. They are asked why did you get pregnant in the first place? Thus there’s violence prior, there’s violence through whether it is abortion or delivery. You weren’t screaming when it went inside, why are you screaming when it comes outside?

So everybody faces stigma and discrimination and also there’s a lot of guilt and a lot of shame which then gets magnified when you don’t have access to any other services. So if a woman leaves the village now to go to a health services, first of all the stigma will be-- does she have COVID-19. No family wants to face the stigma of that because that will immediately isolate them. Imagine if doctors are being stigmatized and people are not getting into elevators when there is a doctor in same building, or you go to the health service and see a doctor and when the doctor comes back home, these fancy gated communities stigmatize the doctors. So you can imagine how difficult it is for somebody actually seeking the service.

I would say actually the pandemic has shown us the underside of what our society always was and that’s why if we are wise enough, we will realize this is what happens when you stigmatize a particular religion or you demonize some people. As Irwin Goldstein says, if there is stigma for one, there will be stigma for something else. And because we have stigma for caste, for gender, whether it is menstruation, sit outside etc., it will also come for those who have corona virus.

I don't want to be somebody who's bringing bad news, I'm just saying it's out there and let's look at it seriously, let's look at it in a way that we can mend some of the ways [before the pandemic ends] that this virus brought to light.

NM: I think you have said that really well. Like, the pandemic is revealing what was already there. So, none of these problems or challenges that we are facing today because of the pandemic are new. So I think that is a very important takeaway for many of us because the mainstream media is kind of missing out the point and when they look at the pandemic they are chasing, they're going after a certain community, they are increasing the stigma around certain people, races[and all of that]. And I think that is taking away the focus from the real issue [and the real issue] which is the system gap that was anyway already there.

MG: Every crisis has an opportunity. And we should use those opportunities to first make abortion services woman- centered. Second, let us strengthen our public health services. And the third is that, violence or stigmatizing does not work.

It is also a learning that nature does not really need the human race. When the human race is locked up, you find peacocks on the streets of Bombay, you find whales and dolphins coming close to the bay, you find the birds in my city, Pune, that you have never seen before. Actually, nature does not need us, we need nature. And I think we need to realize that. Also that we do not need things, we need people around us, and if we can move towards a more sustainable world, a more equitable world, then that would be really good.

We can advocate for strengthening of our services and to see that nobody's discriminated, nobody's denied any kind of health service and that entire campaign in India that is going on for universal access to comprehensive healthcare becomes a reality and we call upon State responsibility and State obligation to provide these health services.

One more opportunity is for men to realize that working at home, ‘helping’, is not actually helping out because it is their share of housework. So, they are now actually sharing housework and maybe they might actually find looking after children or doing housework is not such a bad thing, it can be quite interesting.

And then the last thing I would like to say is that to never forget the intersectional approach. That in situations of uncertainty, child marriage, early marriage become the norm. Trafficking of people, especially women and children become the norm. And so therefore, the earlier we get out of the uncertain situation, the better. And women's health or women's rights can be secured only when the entire community or the entire country and the world are safe. And therefore the migrants do not have homes and where you see almost concentration camp like situations, you cannot even look at the photos.

I think this pandemic has given us one more chance. We can go to the brink of disaster or we can come back, we can be grateful to nature and we can think of how to reorganize the order that is based on equality and democracy.

N: Thank you so much, Manisha. I think this is sort of the way we wanted to end the conversations also and the take away is definitely that speaking from a rights and public health perspective is important and violence and stigma doesn't work. Therefore the approach has to be people centric, the approach has to be environmentally sustainable. In the same way for intersectional approaches, because for us also, we work on gender, we work on sexuality rights but [so much of it] right now in the country is the glaring condition of migrants, glaring conditions of labourers and daily wage earners.

MG: Never to give up the hope that a better world is possible. And like Gandhi said, "Be change that you want to see", so let us start in our small and big ways. The collectives can do much more than all of us can do individually so let us collectivize all over again. Through peaceful means, let us make the world a better place, never to become cynical and never to give up hope.

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