Law · Public Policy

Of Taboos & Social Pressures

“If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people to not kill each other? Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.”

This quote by Mother Teresa is a reflection of the prevailing mindset in India regarding reproductive rights, especially abortion. Historically, women have been trained to be subservient, non assertive and dependent on first her parents and then her husband and his family. Reproduction was never a matter of choice for a woman and becoming a mother was the natural consequence to marriage.

Earlier, girls were married off very young, sometimes even before they attained puberty to much older men. Consequentially they got pregnant at tender ages of 14 and 15 years. At an age where girls were still attempting to understand their bodies, they were expected to raise children. Early pregnancy coupled with early widowhood, women suffered from taboos like widow remarriage, raising children on their own and the idea of being a working woman. This slowly changed after social reformers who espoused the causes of child marriage and widow remarriage and legislations restraining child marriage and promoting widow remarriages were enacted.

Many decades after independence, there is very little change in the condition of women with respect to reproductive rights. Society has by and large brain washed women into thinking that abortion is murder, and even worse is abortion by an unmarried girl. Sex has been a taboo since time immemorial and therefore sex education is not easily accessible. Contraception and safe sex are alien concepts to millions in our country thanks to this lack of sex education which directly influence a woman’s reproductive rights in more than one ways.

Another important issue relating to reproductive rights is the obsession of our society with the male child. A girl child is discouraged and mourned by all because of the belief that girls are a burden due to the ‘responsibilities’ of raising her and eventually arranging for a dowry to get her married. This led to a rapid growth in family sizes due to the pressure to have a boy child, social unacceptability of abortions after having more than 2 children and in many cases, the growth of female feticide & infanticide. This entire social structure is a vicious cycle which has been a major roadblock in the path to greater freedom for women to assert their reproductive rights.

Even though the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 has provided for centers where legal abortion can be done in accordance with the Act, there is no regulation of these centers and many fraud medical practitioners have been cheating women in small towns and villages. The obvious lack of information and the taboo attached to abortion has led women to go through abortions discreetly under questionable conditions and have been subject to physical trauma and in many cases, death.

Abortion & the Unmarried Woman:

It is extremely important to note that the legislation regulating medical termination of pregnancy does not provide abortion as a way of right to a woman.

A woman’s sexuality and bodily rights have been under public scrutiny since time immemorial and never been her own personal rights. The need to control and suppress a woman’s sexuality has perpetuated ignorance among women about their basic rights, especially ignorance of sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and medical termination of pregnancy.

The first major difficulty facing unmarried women with respect to abortion rights is the concept of ‘purity and virginity’ of a girl. An unmarried girl who has engaged in sexual intercourse is ridiculed and looked upon by our society as ‘impure’ and ‘too sexual to be a good girl’. This idea has caused unimaginable harm to innumerable girls and therefore forced them to keep their sexual desires secret. The most glaring example of sheer bias towards a sexually active unmarried girl is the Mathura custodial rape case in 1972. The teenage girl was sexually active with a boy with whom she was in a relationship. The Apex Court of the country while hearing the appeal in this case where Mathura was raped by two policemen, held that since there was no retaliation on the victim’s part and because she was already sexually active, there was assumption of consent on her part and the accused were acquitted.

The second hurdle is the lack of a positive legislation which extends a girl’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy without the social pressures and judgments on her character and womanhood. The MTP Act must be amended again to introduce the right to abortion for unmarried woman as a matter of right of choice. If such a piece of legislation is not passed, then the rate of illegal and unsafe abortions will only increase.

A ‘pro choice’ law is much needed and would solve a considerable amount of the problems that young women in India face in case of unplanned or accidental pregnancy before and after marriage.

Guilty Conscience & Social Alienation:

The parochial approach to women’s sexuality must be quashed. In cases where legal abortion is permitted and carried out, many women go through severe mental trauma and require support and care. But instead of providing her with the love and care she needs, she is made to feel guilty and satanic for ‘killing a child’. Such reactions end up putting her in an even worse state and lead to depression and isolation.

The need to have strong social and institutional support to help a woman get through this phase is grossly undermined and undervalued. It is extremely important to change the mindset of our society towards women who choose abortion over motherhood for various reasons which she thinks is reasonably valid. Social acceptance and emotional support are vital for a woman to recover from the mental and physical anguish that she may have suffered.

 About the Author

riddhimaRiddhima Sharma

A patriot and hopeful change maker, Riddhima is a believer in the power of women to change the world. She has studied Political Science with special reference to the feminist movement, feminist theory and the position of women in Indian politics. She is currently pursuing Law and hopes to specialize in women related laws and work with an organization in a related field. She enjoys public speaking and is not afraid to speak her mind. Sharma is a quick learner and is keen to gain new experiences especially in the areas of public policy, politics and strategy.


Mathura rape case:

Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies and Violence in India: by Geetanjali Gangoli

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971:

The realities of Abortion in India:

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