A year after she gave birth to twin daughters, S discovered that she was pregnant again. Already struggling to raise her babies who had been born premature, the 29-year-old decided that she wasn't ready for another pregnancy yet. However, when she discussed it with her husband, family members and doctor, she was discouraged from looking at abortion as an option.
"The main challenge was that the third child could be a son, and given that in India you think you have a complete family only when you have both a son and a daughter. I had two daughters, so the third child could help me "complete" my family," S told HuffPost India over email. "Also, it was assumed that when the baby is in the womb, one shouldn't kill it."
However, the Delhi resident was firm and confident of her decision and convinced her family that it was the best option for her. "I felt sad and a sense of guilt, but also very relieved," she wrote. "Having an abortion was the best choice for me."
S is the first woman to share her story as part of the Voice Your Abortion project on Facebook, which aims at starting an open discussion around abortion in India by providing a safe platform for women to share their real-life stories and experiences of abortion without judgement and stigma.
"In India, you think you have a complete family only when you have both a son and a daughter. I had two daughters, so the third child could help me 'complete' my family."
This was the first time that S had shared her story on a public platform, in the form of a web comic. "It is not spoken about openly and the decision is rarely ever taken by the woman herself. It is usually the partner or the in-laws who make the decision for the woman," S said.
"I wanted to support this project because I want women to know about their abortion rights, so that they are aware and informed, and can make the best decisions for themselves."
Surabhi Srivastava, a Mumbai-based activist who founded Voice Your Abortions,
said that it was important that Indian women get a platform to discuss their experiences without having to worry about consequences or judgment.
"It is driven by stories that women share, and is geared towards putting forth the intersectional nature of abortion as an issue that is related to the larger conversation on social and economic equality," Srivastava said.
Srivastava, who had previously worked on gender and sexuality issues with the organisation CREA in Delhi is entirely self-funded. Her sister Jaiti, a graphic designer, heads the visual communications and design part of the project, and California-based abortion rights and reproductive justice advocate Kristin Francoeur works as a consultant.
"As a feminist, and someone who has worked on abortion rights issues, I realized that unlike in the U.S, where I first became aware about issue and its political implications, in India, we just don't talk about abortion at all," Srivastava said.
"Often when I would tell people that I work on abortion rights, they would just give me a blank stare or just be totally stumped. So, I knew there was a really urgent need to talk about the issue, and the best way to do that is to enable a space for women who have had an abortion to talk about it, so that people understand that it's not an abstract issue, but a common experience for most women that we ought to respect rather than judge and shame."
"Unlike in the U.S, where I first became aware about issue and its political implications, in India, we just don't talk about abortion at all."
Though abortion is legal in India upto 20 weeks, unsafe abortions still outnumber safe and legal abortion in India. An India Spend report says that over 10 million Indian women undergo secret abortions in their homes every year, many of them relying on over-the-counter pills that can lead to medical complications. According to a 2013 report by international NGO Ipas, unsafe abortions kill a woman every two hours in India, due to the lack of medical facilities, affordable services and social stigma from healthcare providers that leads many women to make risky choices.
The project lays a lot of emphasis on ethical storytelling and story-sharing, by keeping the women at the centre of the storytelling process and giving them full control over their narratives, including the choice to stay anonymous and decide on the medium they want to share their story in (such as a written testimonial, art, poetry, web-comics, video, etc.).
Once she is approached by a woman, Srivastava tries to meet her in person or at least have a telephone conversation to explain the project and understand why she wants to share her story. Once the respondent agrees, she signs a consent form, with the story being documented in notes or audio recordings. She also withdraw her story at any point of time.
So far, the project has documented three stories, but Srivastava says that getting the word is a challenge. So far the outreach has mostly through Facebook and Twitter, as well as through word of mouth publicity through organisations working on human rights, women's rights, gender and sexuality issues. "How do you start a conversation about something that is rarely, if ever, talked about? So while being online has helped to an extent, doing outreach offline has been quite a challenge," Srivastava said.
"For instance, we have been trying to put up flyers about the project in different cafes, bookshops, etc. but so far we have usually faced rejection."
"How do you start a conversation about something that is rarely, if ever, talked about?"
In the long term, Srivastava hopes to connect the women who share their stories with each other to build a network of storytellers and abortion rights activists in India. She also hopes that the stories can play a role in starting a discussion on making the abortion law in the country more progressive and rights-based.
"I see the project moving towards the goal where we are able to end abortion stigma, and make abortion available on demand, and make it safe, legal, available and free (hence funded by the public healthcare system)," Srivastava said. "This is possible only when we shatter the silence and shame around abortion, realize that women have the right to make decisions around their bodies, healthcare, sexuality, reproduction and motherhood without shame and judgment."
Together, the three stories present diverse and honest experiences and suggest that there can be no one way to look at abortion. For instance, X from Haryana writes about having two abortions. When she discovered that she was pregnant at the age of 35 after having two kids, she and her husband mutually decided that they did not want to go ahead.
"The decision wasn't compelled by any economic or social reasons. We just didn't want another child. Period," she wrote. "Post abortion, I did not feel any regret or any kind of negative feelings. My husband and I also never discussed the abortion again."
A couple of years later, when she found she was pregnant again, she decided to opt for an abortion again. This time, following the gynaecologist's suggestion, she also underwent a tubectomy as a birth control method after the abortion.
"The decision wasn't compelled by any economic or social reasons. We just didn't want another child. Period."
"I have never felt any negative feelings or regret about both my abortions. Instead, I felt empowered and confident of being able to exercise my own choice regarding continuing or terminating a pregnancy," X wrote. "Having a supportive and understanding partner through this process was certainly helpful too."
In contrast, another respondent, Y from Haryana had a much more conflicting emotional experience during abortion. She was 33, working and with two sons, when she discovered that she was pregnant again. "Just a few months before I discovered that I was pregnant, I had met a face reader who had said that I would have a third child and that child would be a girl," she writes. "However, even though I was desperate to have a daughter, I felt weak and drained to have another child and to continue the pregnancy. So, I spoke to my partner, and we decided that we should go ahead and have an abortion."
Since abortion was illegal in the place where the couple was staying, they told the gynaecologist that they didn't want another baby. When she visited the doctor again in a couple of weeks, she discovered that the fetus was stillborn and underwent an abortion on the same day.
"I feel that the decision of abortion happened to me, instead of me actively choosing it. However, I think it was the right thing to have happened given that I did not want to have another child given my life circumstances at that point," Y said.
"But I think in a different context, I would have gone ahead with it, but the struggle to come to that decision that would have been difficult. Since this experience, I have talked about it with my partner and with my kids, but never regretted the decision."