The WRAP #25: Abortion Stigma, Men and 60 seconds with Sarah Soysa

Last week we went to the launch of the VicHealth 2013 National Community Attitudes Survey, which you no doubt found as profoundly disturbing as we did.

And of course it made us think about attitudes. Attitudes to violence, to women, to immigrants and refugees, to particular ethnic groups … let’s face it, there is a lot of attitude going around!

Then we thought, let’s throw some of our own attitude around: so we’re talking about abortion stigma, where men fit in the whole violence against women prevention plan and then spending 60 seconds with a woman who definitely knows how to advocate, Sarah Soysa.

This Sunday is the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. Make some noise!
And if you like our attitude, this month we’d love you to share the WRAP with someone who’d like it too.

Until next time,
The WRAP Team

Abortion stigma: shame on you

Safe and legal access to abortion, like clean drinking water and poverty, is often thought about in ‘third world’ terms. Australia is, after all, the ‘lucky country’, with a not-perfect, but nevertheless top class public health system, right? As we often highlight in our WRAP articles, ensuring access in all of its forms (legal, financial, physical and cultural), is key to improving immigrant and refugee women’s health. Access to choice free from judgement is an equally important factor and can seriously impact on a woman’s health and wellbeing, wherever she happens to live.

The 28th of September is the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, and this year’s Call for Action focuses on addressing abortion stigma. Abortion stigma is one of the main obstacles towards ensuring the availability and accessibility of comprehensive abortion services. Silence, shame, guilt and fear are all very real barriers, not only to accessing safe abortion but to speaking openly about it. And while it’s true that every year, almost all of the 21 million women (approximately) who undergo unsafe abortion are in developing countries (WHO 2011), abortion stigma can be and is experienced by women in the ‘developed’ world.

Although there are clear actions we can take, both in Australia and internationally, to make abortion legal and safe, it will not guarantee that all women have ready access to it. Even in countries such as Australia where abortion is less legally restricted, women can resort to unsafe abortion because of abortion stigma. A case in point: if you’re a non-English speaking immigrant woman on a temporary visa living in a small, rural town with only one health service, it’s doubtful you would have access to culturally appropriate health service or be able to retain medical privacy. (Albury, for example, has about 100,000 residents and one abortion clinic.)

Stigma can manifest itself in many ways. Secrecy, shame or feelings of regret, guilt and fear associated with seeking a termination can impact on a woman’s ability to make an independent and autonomous choice. As Anuradha Kumar and others have highlighted, abortion stigma is in effect ‘compound stigma’ because ‘it builds on other forms of discrimination and structural injustice’. The stigma around abortion is tightly interwoven with other social expectations and stereotypes around gender roles in relation to motherhood, sexuality and family responsibility.

Prevailing social, cultural and religious attitudes within different communities can create and reinforce negative attitudes towards women seeking abortion. These potential pressures are often magnified in rural and regional areas where gossip in one community can mean dishonour for a woman in another. But abortion stigma can also be created and perpetuated through organisations and institutions, as is the case of insurance companies who limit the extent of pregnancy-related cover to international students.

In reality, safe access to abortion is far more complex than making it legal, opening more clinics and making medication available (although obviously this is essential). Without social support, abortion stigma will continue to impact on women’s physical and mental health and well-being long after the decision ‘to abort’ or ‘not to abort’ has been made.

Safe and legal abortion free from stigma and discrimination is a women’s health and human right issue. On Sunday, we call for action for the 26% of world citizens where abortion is prohibited. But we also call for action to develop our thinking on the ways that Australian society, including media representations and government policy, can take the stigma out of the decision-making process for all women who seek an abortion.

Engaging men in violence prevention: gender equity in practice

As many of us know, the way to eliminate violence against women is to achieve gender equality. We also know that in order to end violence against women, all of us—women and men—need to work together. What is often less clear is precisely why engaging and involving men in prevention activities is so important to achieving this outcome.

There has been a definite and positive shift in thinking about men’s involvement—the focus is now less on men as perpetrator and more as partners in primary prevention. However, there continues to be confusion and uncertainty about what this looks like in practice. But is this any surprise? If we all agree that gender-based violence affects women disproportionately, and is a result of the unequal power relationships between women and men, simply involving men in a cause so entwined with their privileged gender role, without challenging this role, is going to have its difficulties. Don’t forget the goal is gender equality. But for that to happen, it’s not possible to split the prevention pie in two equal shares. We need to involve men in violence prevention in ways that address the inequality in gender relations and lift away the invisible cloak of gender privilege.

Perhaps it is these concepts of equality (or formal equality in ‘human rights speak’) and equity (or substantive equality) are the real cause of confusion. As we strive towards achieving equal treatment of women and men and equal access to resources and services for all, we also need to recognise that achieving equality involves fairness and justice in the distribution of resources between men and women (equity). More women-specific and culturally-specific programs and policies are required, precisely because there are inequalities that need fixing. Our efforts to prevent violence follows this feminist line of thinking: men need to work with women as partners to advance the work already being carried out by women. In order to do this, they will need to actively contribute to changing and challenging gender expectations themselves.

So, as a first step, let’s always ask ourselves: will men’s involvement here help to transform the structures and processes supporting the violence we are challenging? If the answer is ‘no’ or, even worse, if their involvement will reinforce men’s privilege and interests, then we need to go back to the drawing board. But if the answer is ‘yes’ we can proceed to asking how we can make that happen. Perhaps that’s another issue for another WRAP.

60 seconds with Sarah Soysa

Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights Youth Advocate and international studentSri Lanka_Sarah Soysa cropped

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
I’m enjoying reading, my master’s experience [in gender and international development] and spending time with students from different backgrounds and cultures. Loving the variety of food and wine in Melbourne too!

If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
I would use my super power to help all the women around the world to access free, safe and legal abortions and all young people to have access and services to sexual and reproductive health rights. Also, I wouldn’t mind using magic to conjure up different food whenever I feel like it.

What would your friends say about you?
My friends think I am patient and fun to hang out with.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australian culture, what would it be?
Experience the different cultures, people, food, entertainment. Don’t hold back! Talk to people and make friends with different backgrounds – that’s the best way to enjoy Australia.

Can you share one quote or saying you love, that keeps you going in life?
“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” (Rabindranath Tagore)

What is your favourite smell? What memory does it remind you of?
Rain on dry soil … it reminds me of forests and elephants. I love elephants.

What would be a perfect afternoon for you?
Chocolate cake and coffee having a chat with my super awesome family.

Finish this sentence: “We need feminism because…”
We need equal rights and treatment, to stay free from violence, and to make informed choices for ourselves.