An Interview With Dr Suchitra Dalvie
CREDIT: @tarshi.ngo and @asapasia
INTERVIEW: SUCHITRA DALVIE
April 1, 2014
This interview is an edited version of the interview originally published in the April 2014 edition of In Plainspeak, an e-magazine on issues of sexual and reproductive health in the Global South. Please read the complete interview here.
Dr. Suchitra Dalvie best known for her strong pro-choice views and her unflinching support for safe abortion, is also a blogger and a book lover, with deep insights into feminism and women’s rights. Currently, she is the Coordinator of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership and a Steering Committee Member at Common Health. In this interview, she talks to Shweta Krishnan about what it means to be pro-choice.
SK: The abortion discourse is largely dominated by the pro-life-pro-choice debate in the West. You’ve been working for more than 10 years in India and Asia. How different or how similar is the dialogue here in Asia?
SD: Feminist discourses have evolved very differently in the West and in Asia. In fact, Western feminists are taking ideological positions that do not always align with what people believe in the so-called developing world. Even among the feminists in Asia, there has never been much of a common platform. I am not suggesting ideologically, but even physically places being created where feminists across Asia can participate.
In that way the abortion debate has also been shaped very differently. Many of our countries, were colonies of European nations, particularly the United Kingdom, Netherlands and France. At the time of independence, they inherited colonial legal systems, which are now very archaic and obsolete, but continue to dominate the legal environment. So, in many places, across Asia, abortion is still criminalized. Several countries including India have passed more recent laws that legalize abortions under specific circumstances. Some of these laws are pretty liberal, but these laws were mostly passed with the intent of reducing deaths from unsafe abortion, not with the intent of providing women a choice. So, I would imagine in most of Asia, there hasn’t really been a pro-choice debate as such.
I think there is no prolife debate either. All the religions in the region are thought to stress on the sanctity of life. There is also some stress on non-violence, particularly in Buddhism. But overall, the discourse is more fragmented than in the West.
SK: The most recent emerging barrier for abortion in India and a few other Asian countries is sex selection, and you have been very vocal about the need to preserve safe abortion. Can you talk a little about how sex selection and safe abortion have to be understood in relation to each other?
SD: In the 1980s, there was this recognition that there were some pockets, where the medical professionals were…. I wouldn’t say encouraging, but were supporting the notion that women were identifying the female fetus and terminating that pregnancy. There are many books that I’ve read, which emerged from interviews and discourses during that period. One of the famous ones is called, May you be the mother of a hundred sons. At that point in time, the doctors believed that they were helping the woman.
We now recognize that the concept of identifying the female fetus emerges from the issue of gender discrimination. But in the 1980s, no one was asking the big question: why does no one want the girl child? It was so internalized that no one thought to question it. When the campaign started, sex-selection was not seen as part of the whole spectrum of gender discrimination and so it got linked very easily to the point of termination, and access to safe abortion got affected.
What we need is, conversations about gender discrimination. Even if people want girl children to be born, no one is discussing the quality of life that the girl will lead. They just want to talk about protecting this cute little girl child who will grow up and be a wife. What if the ‘million missing women’ decide to be single or are lesbians or are infertile, then is the society begging for them to be born going to want them? Also, a lot of emerging arguments discuss the devastating social impacts for men because of the lack of women. I cannot understand this. After the world wars there was a tremendous sex ratio imbalance because of the many men who died in war. But women did not go berserk and attack men. They just adapted and moved on. So partly, this rhetoric is unfair to men. It is unfair to assume that they will turn aggressive and violent and attack women if there are not enough women.
So the rhetoric is still feeding into the patriarchal system. That is my problem with it. It is not being recognized as gender discrimination in the widest possible sense. Instead, everyone is just pitting it against safe abortion, which is an easy target. The more you restrict it, the more you are going to drive it underground.
SK: Could we talk a little about the stigma against unwanted pregnancies and abortion and what kind of barriers might come out of this?
SD: I think the stigma that is attached to an unwanted pregnancy plays out differently depending on whether the pregnancy is within a marriage or outside of a marriage. So if we step back and look at the genesis of these social norms, I think it goes back to a time when paternity became important, and it became necessary to ensure that women were sexually active with only one male partner. So, marriage was incentivised, and not being married stigmatized. Also within a marriage, children are valued as an asset because of inheritance laws, and so being a mother is also incentivised. And this is how women also internalize this idea and believe that everyone wants to be a mother.
We have come a long way, but there is a lot of stigma against women who don’t want to have a child within marriage. Children tether a woman to a marriage, and even in cases of domestic abuse, women with children are the last to leave. There is so much stigma attached to abortion because if women don’t want to have children then they can be ‘free’ to have sex with anyone, and if you cannot control their sexuality, how else would you control women? And it is ‘not right’ for a woman to be a mother outside of marriage, because if she can have the benefit of motherhood outside of a marriage, marriage will not be incentivised any more.
About Shweta Krishnan: A feminist writer and multimedia producer based in Chennai, India. She has a background in clinical medicine and medical journalism. Through her work she explores the intersection of gender, religion and class. She also works for the inclusion of a human rights framework into public health services.