Are Indian Women Aware Of Reproductive Coercion?
Reproductive coercion, which is control over a women’s agency over her reproductive choices and rights like when to conceive a child, if they can abort the child or not or how many children to have is something that is extremely common in South Asia. In India, it also includes the number of children women are coerced to have before they have a male child, the termination of female fetuses against their will amongst the others. This happens across the country, across all classes of society. Yet, reproductive coercion is probably the least researched upon as a subject, so much that there isn’t any concrete survey or data available on what percentage of women in India face reproductive coercion during their lifetimes.
WHAT IS REPRODUCTIVE COERCION?
The term, as described by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ (ACOG), encompasses “behaviour intended to maintain power and control in a relationship related to reproductive health by someone who is, was, or wishes to be involved in an intimate or dating relationship with an adult or adolescent.”
It involves acts like hiding, withholding, or destroying a partner’s birth control pills or removing contraceptive patches, rings or IUDs. Men also intentionally break condoms or remove a condom during sex, also known as stealthing. In some cases, the partner doesn’t withdraw during an intercourse when that was the agreed-upon method of contraception. Attempting to force/ coerce a partner to have an abortion against their will. Controlling abortion-related decisions, refusing to wear a condom when a partner wants to use one, pressuring someone to do sexual things when they don’t want to and threatening to end a relationship if a partner doesn’t have sex. These are all forms and ways in which reproductive coercion works.
While sex and talking about any sexual thing freely is a taboo in our country, it goes unnoticed how widely partners and their families coerce women into making the choices that they wouldn’t have made willfully. Reproductive coercion is also a form of intimate partner violence that women experience and as per Indian law, a complaint against reproductive coercion falls under the Domestic Violence Act.
- Reproductive coercion is when a woman’s choice over reproduction is under the control of someone else and not herself.
- Women in rural areas have limited knowledge of contraception and there is a stigma around using contraceptives in the lower class of the society.
- Family members and partners coerce women to have a son, even if it takes multiple pregnancies.
- Women can file a case under domestic violence act and reproductive coercion is also a ground for divorce.
PREVALENCE IN INDIA
Talking about its existence in India, gynaecologist Jyotsna Gupta said, “In case of choice of becoming pregnant or aborting a child, it is very much prevalent in India because along with the partner, the families also pressurize the women. Women don’t talk openly about it and since I mainly deal with women from the slums and rural women, they don’t have many birth control options. They mainly rely on their male partner and they don’t want to use contraceptives at all even if it puts them under the threat of sexually transmitted diseases.
When asked if female contraception is not available to rural women, Gupta said that it is available but it is not easily approachable. “Women in the lower class of the society generally don’t go to the gynaecologist until there is an issue. And even when they do come to us, they are always accompanied by either their husbands or their in-laws, and the family members never allow women to use contraceptives.”
NEGOTIATING REPRODUCTIVE CHOICES
Further, she shares, “There was a case where a woman had come to me and she said that she already had had two girls but her family was forcing her to conceive a boy. She finally ended up giving birth to a male child but after the caesarean, we sterilised the women. In such cases, we operate the woman on the condition that they will have to go through sterilisation.” Women are at a loss at all ends in such cases because even when they don’t want to become pregnant, they are forced to because of their partner and family.
Ramneet Kaur, a PhD student from Delhi University, whose research revolves around educated women’s agency over themselves, told us how she found that while some women negotiate their reproductive rights within their families, some are compelled to get pregnant right after marriage. In cases of male-child preference, they have to go through multiple pregnancies beyond their will. “Everything about women’s reproductive rights is decided by their male partners, families and their community. I found only 15 percent of women could successfully negotiate their choice over reproduction because their partners supported them. They took the decision to have children or even to just have a single child even if it is a girl child. There is a lot of competition among the women in the families to have a male child in middle-class families. Also, the competition among women is due to societal pressure which always says that if the Jaithani is having a son the devrani should have one too, because then they will not be having any property claimer in the devrani’s family,” said Kaur.
She pointed out that while women made their choices, but they are ostracized within their families or society if they didn’t confirm. However, many women who are working and are educated also don’t have full right over their reproductive choices. Kaur surveyed 100 women in West Delhi area.
Reproductive coercion also works in cases of abortion. Lawyer Jayna Kothari says that in many divorce cases, if the woman is pregnant at the time then her in-laws and partner force them to have an abortion even if she may want the child.
SILENCE ON REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS
Reproductive rights do not exist without any linkages with other rights. The conversation has to be around the larger issue of rights and dignity within which reproductive rights would be a subset, said Krishna Menon, a gender studies professor at Ambedkar University.
“Often forced pregnancies happen because of forced sex and rape within marriage and then women are not allowed to take contraceptives. So she ends up becoming pregnant. If you talk about reproductive rights, then you must also talk about sexual violence within relationships and marriages. Since there is a lot of shame and embarrassment attached to sex in our country, women don’t prefer to come out and talk about it. There is a big silence around reproductive coercion,” she said.
“We don’t teach our girls in school about their reproductive rights. We don’t have proper adolescent reproductive rights guideline in the primary healthcare centres. Unless women are pregnant, they don’t go to gynaecs. Young married girls don’t even know how to use contraception or what forms of contraception are available because there is no ready information available on it. Even schools barely teach sex education,” Kothari added.
Women can file a complaint under the protection of women from domestic violence act. They can file it against any of their family members and this can also be a ground for divorce, as one of the grounds for divorce is cruelty and it includes physical cruelty. Women can also seek protection under the Domestic Violence act.
There are severe repercussions of reproductive coercion, apart from the mental trauma as forced pregnancies leave women to become more dependent on their partners if they don’t have financial independence. It increases women’s dependency on the violator and therefore makes them succumb to more violence. Women also end up having lots of health-related risks. Many women fall sick because of repeated pregnancies.
Talking about the legal action women can take in case of reproductive coercion, Kothari, who has co-founded Centre for Law and Policy Research, said, “Women can file a complaint under the protection of women from domestic violence act. They can file it against any of their family members and this can also be a ground for divorce as one of the grounds for divorce is cruelty and it includes physical cruelty. Women can also seek protection under the Domestic Violence Act.”