This post is part of our week-long series on the personal impact of the current state of reproductive health, rights, and justice.
ARROW is a regional non-profit women’s NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Since it was established in 1993, it has been working to advance women’s health, affirmative sexuality and rights, and empower women through information and knowledge, engagement, advocacy and mobilisation. You can find out more about ARROW’s work at our website, on facebook or on twitter.
The 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade is a landmark pertinent to the USA. While its impact outside the US is marginal, it is important at this time to look at what is happening when it comes to reproductive justice and the right to abortion outside of North America.
Asia is a vast and populous region. Attitudes, access to and the legal status of abortion differ on a state by state basis. One thing is clear however, more is needed. More must be done to change attitudes to women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy in order for there to be meaningful access to abortion across the region.
Perhaps the most relevant lesson from the Asian region is this: legal protection of the right to abortion is not enough. Many states in Asia (although certainly not all) such as Cambodia, Nepal and China have far more comprehensive legal protections for abortion than women enjoy in the USA. Despite this, in 2008 there was an estimated 10.8 million unsafe abortions in Asia. This is because illegality is not the only barrier to accessing safe abortion. Stigma towards pre or extra marital sex means that many women do not feel they can go to public clinics in order to have their legal abortions
Legality also does not guarantee adequate service provision. Rural women, for example, are chronically underserved across the region when it comes to reproductive health services. Abortion being a legal medical service is fine and dandy, but it does little to improve your life if you must travel many kilometres away from your village and sacrifice days when you could be bringing income into your household in order to seek out the procedure. Access to services is of profound importance when we are discussing abortion. Legality is irrelevant without availability.
Lack of accurate information about sexual and reproductive health is also a key barrier to women seeking out the services they need. Comprehensive sex education (CSE) is still not a reality across most of the region, despite the fact many countries including Indonesia and Bangladesh have committed to CSE in either public health or youth national plans (sometimes both). This lack means that myths abound, particularly amongst young people. This often means that people are unaware of safe and/or legal methods of abortion and instead utilise methods of terminating a pregnancy that are unsafe for a number of reasons such as hygiene and physical trauma.
Abortion in Asia is an issue that has many layers, and the particular circumstances of each country differ widely. It is important that when we talk about reproductive rights in the global south that we do not talk in stereotypes and instead take the time to understand the complexities involved.
[Editor’s Note: more people than just cis women need and want access to affordable reproductive health care, including abortion.]
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