In a packed café in the lively Bandra neighbord of Mumbai, I struggled to hear the excited voices of three 19-year-old pre-med students. Nikita, Riti, and Suyash had recently participated in a workshop organized by IWHC partner the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership (ASAP) on topics such as sexuality, gender, and abortion rights. Completely absent from medical school curriculum, most students complete their degree without ever having explored these issues, which are so central to the lives of the people they treat. Nikita, Riti, and Suyash—although only in their second year of training—clearly had a pent-up desire to share all they had learned and explain how it related to their medical training.
“I can’t believe I had no idea about medical abortion,” exclaimed Nikita. “We can’t judge. Abortion is a right. As health care providers, we have to grant that right,” said Riti. Medical abortion is when a pregnancy is terminated using medication. There are misconceptions about this type of abortion, as well as surgical abortion, and women who seek these services are often stigmatized.
Suyash spoke at length about challenging social norms to ensure women and girls are empowered to access these and other health services. The students created a video called “Breaking Gender Stereotypes.” It includes female students holding signs saying things like “I don’t need a knight in shining armor, I am my own knight” and “I drove him home tonight.” Suyash has a sign saying “I am a proud kathak dancer.”
ASAP, founded in 2008, organizes workshops for young people across Asia to encourage them to advocate for expanded access to safe abortion as a human right. However, this year was the first time that ASAP organized a tailored workshop just for medical students. The organization’s coordinator, Suchitra Dalvie, is based in Mumbai and as a doctor herself, she knows firsthand what is missing from medical education. As a result, the workshops not only include medically and legally accurate information on abortion, they explore issues of gender, power, and medical ethics.
Since 1971, abortion has been legal in India for women up to the 20th week of pregnancy. However, in a recent study by Pune-based Samyak, 80 percent of the 1,500 youth they interviewed thought it was illegal. For medical students—who one day might be responsible for providing or referring women to other doctors for this service—it’s essential that they not only know the law, but are able to talk about abortion in a non-stigmatizing way. Over the course of the workshop, ASAP led them through scenarios not only about abortion, but about the rights of sex workers, HIV-positive people, and people living in poverty.
After about an hour their comments slowed down and then there was a brief silence before they all looked at me. Riti spoke the words all seasoned advocates want to hear from the next generation: “So let’s talk about what we should do now.”