Photo © Reuters/Eric Gaillard

INDIA: Lifting the Ban on Emergency Contraceptives

In India, emergency contraceptive pills are supposed to be available without a prescription. When Vaishnavi realized women still couldn't find them in drug stores, she launched a petition that led to a partial victory.

Never underestimate the power of what a single act of dissent can do in the world.

I live in Chennai—a city known as India’s health capital and considered quite progressive. I assumed then that women here were able to find the emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) they needed.  When I heard occasional complaints to the contrary, I reasoned they were about rare cases of low supply. But I was wrong.

When I set out to look for ECPs myself, I walked into one medical shop after another and was told every time that they were out of stock. I went to prominent hospitals, 24/7 medical stores, and even solicited the help of a male friend to buy them for me, but found nothing. What I did discover was that an over-the-counter drug, legally available in India without prescription, was not available in its health capital.

I was outraged.

If this was the reality for women in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s largest metropolitan city, I was scared to even picture what women in rural areas of the state were facing.

People told me that my anger was futile, that by being angry, I simply couldn’t achieve anything. How wrong they were. Anger was what drove me to take on patriarchy with my bare hands, and through brazen activism, lift the ban on emergency contraceptives in Chennai and throughout the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

There has been an unofficial and illogical ban on the sale of ECPs in Tamil Nadu for the last ten years. Though ECPs have been legally available over the counter in India since 2005, in 2006 the Tamil Nadu Directorate of Drug Control (DDC) pulled them off pharmacy shelves in response to protests by patriarchal fringe groups with moral objections to the pills. These groups opposed the product advertisements that implied young women had free, unprotected sex.

N. Selvaraju, who was director of the Tamil Nadu DDC at the time, said, “We are not against women’s rights, but this is a moral concern. The advertising of this drug will mean that women will think, ‘I can do anything and there is an easy way not to get pregnant’. We can’t allow such an attitude to grow.”

Behind their decision was an irrational fear of women’s freedom—the aftermath of which ruins not one but generations of families.

In India, where the sanctity of motherhood is glorified and infertility is a curse, the use of contraception is vastly looked down upon. Women are regularly ambushed by patriarchy, treading the line of poverty, and deprived of the education that could help them make informed decisions about their reproduction.

I think of my own grandmother and mother who, like most women of their generation, had no idea about their reproductive rights or family planning options and may have subjected themselves to sexual intercourse that they neither consented to nor could seek pleasure in.

Still today, women are treated as child-making machines and not permitted a say in their own procreation. This contributes to India’s overpopulation, continued poverty, and low literacy rates. What’s more, if a woman expresses her sexual freedom, she is considered a “loose woman” and a bad example to others.

These beliefs cost women their lives and livelihoods. This has to stop.

I am immensely proud to have been the one to restart the dialogue around emergency contraception in India and bust the myths that deny basic human rights to women.

For two months I held protests, emailed and telephoned the Director of Drug Control, Tamil Nadu relentlessly, and with the support of grassroots campaigning organization Jhatkaa, ran an online petition that received close to 3000 signatures in support of bringing access to ECPs to Tamil Nadu.

In response, the DDC director submitted a proposal to the Drug Consultative Committee to include Levonorgestrel, commonly referred to as the morning-after pill, on the list of drugs that can be sold over the counter without a prescription.

This proposal will be considered not only in Tamil Nadu but across India. The DDC also intends to increase the availability and accessibility of the medicine in remote areas throughout India and keep ECPs affordable.

Considering how many women in India go through unnecessary, painful (and often unaffordable) abortions, get pregnant against their will, and worse, are forced to keep a child conceived from rape, this is enormous news.

This step, after ten years of an unofficial ban on ECPs, is especially significant in a country where ideological morality holds high ground, often sidestepping the autonomy women ought to have over their bodies.

It is heartening to see that the DCC understands the need for access to “guilt-free” ECPs and the impact this will have on the lives of women all over India despite overbearing, cultural morals.

A team of DDC members was scheduled to meet with the Drugs Technical Advisory Committee at the end of January to discuss the proposal. Though we have yet to hear back on their progress, we continue to contact them constantly, urging them to push this proposal forward. We will not be dissuaded from keeping up this fight, even if it means making a trip to Delhi and resuming our protest.

Ideally, contraception is a man's business as well. A condom is a cheap, reliable, and accessible product with practically no side-effects and provides protection against sexually transmitted diseases as well as pregnancy. Likewise, vasectomy is much simpler for men and with fewer complications. But there is strong resistance among men to use either, resulting in women having to use precarious, invasive, and often painful methods of birth control. My fight is for the rights of women who are denied access to contraception—but it does not imply that birth control is a woman's responsibility alone.

Never underestimate the power of what a single act of dissent can do in the world. The revolt of feminism is not only a struggle for our rights but also a force for redefining normalcy in society. It is unfortunate that, as women, our persecution binds us together, but our solidarity will help us rid ourselves of it entirely.

Do not let anyone discount your valuable anger. Instead, turn around and ask them why they aren’t angry too.


STORY AWARDS

This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.

How to Get Involved

Vaishnavi’s first petition compelled the Tamil Nadu DDC office to take state-wide action for women’s reproductive rights. Now it’s time to urge the national office to do the same for all Indian women.

You can sign this petition right now to show your support for increased availability of emergency contraceptive pills in India.

Story Awards: Women’s Bodies and the Law 23Send Me Love

Comments

That is indeed very good news about Levonorgestrel being made available over the counter.

But, in the long run, I would say that not only is contraception a man's business AS WELL, it is actually MORE important for a man to use a condom than for a woman to have to use a pill or a diaphragm or any other form.

Many years ago I argued (along with my friends) that the woman should take care of contraception because we would suffer more without it and men cannot be trusted, but now that the condom is so readily available in most countries and is safer than other forms, I think a woman should always carry some as well as a man. I hope that condoms are promoted more and more throughout both the "developed" and the "developing" world as the best form of contraception to save both sexes from unwanted pregnancies and STDs.

Nessa

Pasting an excerpt from the essay, in full agreement.

//Ideally, contraception is a man's business as well. A condom is a cheap, reliable, and accessible product with practically no side-effects and provides protection against sexually transmitted diseases as well as pregnancy. Likewise, vasectomy is much simpler for men and with fewer complications. But there is strong resistance among men to use either, resulting in women having to use precarious, invasive, and often painful methods of birth control. My fight is for the rights of women who are denied access to contraception—but it does not imply that birth control is a woman's responsibility alone.//

 

Thank you for sharing Vaishnavi.

Where there is resistance among men to take care of contraception and limited access or no access of contraception to women, the morning after pill becomes an essential right. 

It is inspiring what you did and beyond the change that you are driving in Chennai and India, the key message that you shared about not letting anyone discount valuable anger is very meaningful. 

Anj

Hello Vaishnavi,

Your narration is amazing and for a moment I got caught in the emotions you felt while experiencing it all... Your words: "Still today, women are treated as child-making machines and not permitted a say in their own procreation." these words resonate even in modern day society...I have friends who are married and their husbands have to decide whether they are on any form of birth control or contraceptives.

"Considering how many women in India go through unnecessary, painful (and often unaffordable) abortions, get pregnant against their will, and worse, are forced to keep a child conceived from rape, this is enormous news." Only recently, I learnt the hard truth that a family member had to under go countless abortions because her husband didn't want more children and didn't believe in contraceptives. 

I am angry too that contraceptive has been made a woman's problem and even at that, she isn't allowed to take full control of the decision.

Keep up the good work.

Rit  

Best the best possible version of yourself you can be...

Hi Ritz,

Yeah, modernity is a myth. Our thoughts are regressive and women and other minorities have no place here. 

I'm so spectacularly angry with this world. With men who are sitting in decision making positions and advocating bullshit policies to women.

 

We have to change this. One step at a time. Even if the fruits of all this toil is going to benefit an unborn child 100 years from now.

We all need to exercise our rights to our choices. Vaishnavi thanks for your story. I faced a similar problem twice when my need for contraceptives were downplayed by women working in the medical sector who probably regarded me as a loose girl. Timidity and probably shame caused me to fail my goal of taking the pill. Oh the pain those omissions caused me!

Dear Vaishnavi,

Your call for righteous anger is a soothing wind. Thank you for writing about it. For so long this accusation of being "an angry woman" has frightened women off, stopped her from speaking, caused damage to the word feminist. It was perpetuated strongly by news media here in the 1980's when we were pulling incest out from under the carpet across Canada, and it is still used today to silence us. I love how you bring us back to its essentialness. How can we not be furious! I love that you are spectacularly angry. Anger is a powerful fuel for action, and if we are not angry yet without apology, there is room to tap deeper, let the volcano erupt and use it where we need it.

In sisterhood,

Tam

Hi Tam,

Gone are the days when women are humiliated for asking and are conditioned to be coy and humble. Nobody gained anything out of it to be honest. It is time to be angry right now. Actually it surprises me nowadays why people are not angry enough! Hugs :) Thank you for the kind words.

Wow! I read your post in admiration of your spectacular anger and your ability to speak it effectively and beautifully! What wonderful work you are doing for women and their freedom. 

Warmly,

Carrie

 

Hi Adanna,

It would not have been possible had I not been encouraged by all of you women doing amazing things in your respective community. To know that we are not alone while picking up a fight is so gratifying.

Yes my dear!!! The right to contraception is an important tool in the empowerment of women. If women are able to decide on how to reproduce or have sexual intercourse then family planning and zero infections is guaranteed thereby reducing poverty, maternal deaths and more. I admire your courage and thank you for saving many other women

Sally Maforchi Mboumien

Founder/Coordinator COMAGEND Cameroon

Facebook Page: common action for Gender Development

www.comagend.org

Thank you so much M, to be very honest with you, the battle is ongoing - we still have a huge hurdle to cross. But I have enough anger to make sure I see this to its success. Hugs

Dear Vaishnavi, Interesting article, why people would want to own a woman's body but herself is angering indeed! Positive anger yields great positives strides ...go girl! Contraceptives might be available off the counter in my country but still women are extremely embarrassed to buy them because of the judgmental stares they receive ...a starting point for them though. Keep going ...armed with evidence ,facts and the right dose of anger to propel action, we can fight reproductive rights violations like this. A nice read too. Thanks for sharing.

LVB

Oh Lillian - I know right? The judgements are so obviously irksome here too. I may never buy it, I may be so shy to buy it, but i cant be denied it. Nobody can be denied it. Hugs thank you for your kind words :)

Thank you for sharing your story. I truly believe there is nothing more powerful than a smart woman with a righteous anger.  I hope you share more on this story in the future.

Such a powerful piece of writing. Especially loved when you discussed how contraceptives are not only related to women, but also men, and how they should play a part in birth control, as both genders have responsibilities. You are such an amazing role model to other women and girls, sharing your story and your voice, and standing up for women around the world. 

I love your perseverance and tenacity!  You are inspirational--one person can be a positive disruptor for good!  Keep up the great work--I stand with you!

With love,

Anne