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Women, Work and Abortion

Most of the micro-level studies on abortion reach a misleading conclusion that abortions are exclusively a method of family limitation or family planning. A study conducted in four villages of Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu contradicts this orthodoxy and opens up spaces for looking at the question of reproductive rights anew. Women in the study villages consider abortion as a necessity to negotiate the harsh realities in their work places, and deal with domestic violence and different social conditions and beliefs.

Women, Work and Abortion

A Case Study from Tamil Nadu

Fsharp decline in the fertility rate. The fertility decline has taken place essentially through a strategy of family limi

Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071055neighbouring villages. Many other types of industrial units toohave come up in the region. With the increase in garment andleather exports, the number of export-oriented units has alsomultiplied. Added to this is the opening up of many softwareand chemical units in the 1990s, which have absorbed a significantnumber of unskilled workers. An essential feature of the phar-maceutical units is the recruitment of women, especially youngunmarried women, in large numbers.The study villages are located in the neighbourhood of Alathurand supply a large number of young women workers to thepharmaceutical companies in the industrial estate. The choice ofthe study area was partly dictated by the fact that it is markedby a high incidence of abortion.Since my own study is primarily about the women who workin the pharmaceutical companies, as a first step towards thefieldwork, we approached various pharmaceutical units locatedin the Alathur industrial estate to provide us with detailed listsof women working in their units. Since we could not obtain anauthorised list of women workers in these units, we informallyinterviewed the secretary of the pharma association. He providedinformation about the villages from where a large number ofwomen workers come to work in different companies at the estate.Based on this information, we selected four villages. Among themPuthur is located just behind the industrial estate at a distanceof half a kilometre and Kaleri is located besides the estate at adistance of one kilometre.4 Of the other two villages, Mandalamlies at a three kilometres distance away from the estate, whilePennavur is about six kilometres away.Since, the issue of abortion is sensitive and is still shroudedin secrecy, especially among unmarried young women, we decidedto obtain indirectly first level information about various possiblereasons for the increasing rate of abortions in these villages.Initially, we contacted the village health nurses (VHNs) of thestudy villages to obtain information about women’s reproductivepractices in their area of work. The other key informants werethe elected women representatives of the local panchayats of thestudy villages. They introduced the researchers to the birthattendants in each of these villages and from them we obtainedinformation about the private clinics and unregistered doctorswho provided abortion services for unmarried women.We followed this up with different qualitative methods tocollect data for the study. We conducted two focus group dis-cussions (FGDs) in each village, among the women aged between45-65 and 25-45. In two villages alone, we were able to organiseFGDs among the unmarried young women who work in pharma-ceutical companies. Bringing together young unmarried workingwomen for FGD was difficult for many reasons. First and fore-most, given the nature of their jobs, they were away at work formost of the time. Secondly, even on Sundays when they had sometime to spend for discussion, they had to seek permission fromtheir parents or brothers to come out of their house to talk. Thirdly,given the precarious nature of their employment, they wereapprehensive of discussing openly about the conditions ofwork,leave alone issues of sexual exploitation and sexual re-lations. In each FGD that we conducted, we had six to eightparticipants.The FGDs were supplemented by in-depth interviews with keyinformants who included three registered private doctors, twounregistered private doctors, VHNs of the four study villagesand birth attendants of two study villages and the panchayatwomen leaders and women activists of NGOs. These interviewswere informal and unstructured. The doctors were the mainsources of information about the status of abortion practiceespecially among the unmarried young working women. TheVHNs, the village birth attendants as well as the women panchayatleaders provided detailed information about young unmarriedwomen’s changing sexual mores and abortion practices in thevillages where they work.IIAbortion: The Cultural DimensionsWhile discussing their experiences and their perception ofabortion, the first generation of women in the study villagesunanimously agreed that abortion, even before legalisation, wasas widely practised as it is now. They also remarked that in thosedays women did not feel guilty about aborting the foetus sinceabortion was not considered a sinful act. Unlike now whenabortion is linked to public notions of family limitation, in theearlier days it was closely tied to questions of female sexuality,honour and shame. According to them, in their time, birth controlwas informed by an individual’s desire to do away with childcareresponsibilities since they were burdened with domestic choresas well as work outside. Abortion was thus not related to theinformed notions of family limitation since large family withmany children was considered as an honour for women. Narratingher experience, a 65-year old woman, in the course of a FGD,stated, “In those days, it was not considered a shame to havemany children. It was a shame only if you have an abortion. Forthat reason, we had to keep it a secret. Nowadays, it is a shameif you have many children and abortion is no longer a shame.That is why the younger lot is marching to the hospital to haveabortion.”Women’s decision to abort is often a process of accommodatingthe pressures of cultural values and beliefs. For instance, in thestudy villages an induced abortion is inevitable, if a womanconceived in the Tamil month of ‘Adi’ (July-August). Conceivingin Adi is considered to bring bad luck for the mother as wellas for the maternal uncle of the child. If young married womenconceive during this month, even if it is their first conception,they go for an abortion. The following account by a 23-year oldmarried woman illustrates women’s belief in the ill-effects ofhaving sex and conceiving in the month of Adi: “I tried to abortmy first pregnancy because I conceived in the month of Adi,which is not acceptable. The newly married couples are notallowed to sleep together in that month. It is worse, if youconceive. Therefore, I was desperate to get rid of the foetus. Mymother gave me jaggery with ginglee seeds. Unfortunately, nothinghappened. Till today my in-laws curse me for having conceivedduring Adi.”Consulting the local temple priest or the trance-dancing oracle(‘Samiyadi’) on deciding to abort seems to be quite a normalpractice among women in the study villages. Women had takenthe risk of aborting the foetus at the second trimester or evenlater because the priest had advised them about a possible threatfrom the newborn child to the men of the family. The followingaccount by a 21-year old married woman gives us an idea aboutthe tremendous influence exercised by village priests in women’sdecisions to abort:When my first child was just one and a half months old and Iwas still breast-feeding him, I conceived again. So, I wanted toabort the second one and tried with some tablets purchased froma chemist. Since it did not work, I gave up. My husband and mymother-in-law were against the abortion. So, I did not tell themabout my efforts to get rid of the foetus. During the seventh monthof the pregnancy, I developed high blood pressure. My husband
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071056and my mother-in-law took me to the local priest who advisedme to abort the baby immediately, since he felt that baby waspossessed by ghost and that it could harm the male members ofthe family. So my husband insisted on the abortion. You will notbelieve, in the hospital the doctors found the baby dead in thewomb.Like elsewhere, the preference for male child and thereforesex-selective abortion is also prevalent in these villages.5However,women here do not seem to have availed the scan technologyfor detecting the sex of the foetus. Instead, they seem to relyon local method for sex determination. For instance, women inthe four study villages stated that they always looked for circlemarks at the bottom of the girl child (one in the anal part andone above that). According to them, if there are two circles thenthe next child is bound to be a girl child. Even though some ofthem agreed that in their own experience this belief had failed,most of them seem to have relied on this for having an abortion.The doctors at the private clinics confirmed the existence of thislocal belief and its role in decisions to abort. For instance, a doctorfrom the most popular abortion clinic in the area informed usthat mostly her clients ask for abortion based on their observationof circle marks on the girl child.In many cases, son preference has been a deciding factor forabortion. Women prefer to undergo sterilisation only after amalechild is born. If they already have a male child, they donot hesitate aborting the second child even when they “predict”the sex of the second child as male, especially if the first oneis at the nursing stage. Many of them also told us that they optfor an abortion so as to provide special care and attention to thatmale child.6The women respondents in the study villages further mentioneddomestic violence related to alcoholism and suspicion aboutwomen’s fidelity as reasons for women opting for abortion. Inother words, abortion is often perceived by married women asa necessity to negotiate the domestic violence. For instance, a35-year old married woman noted,My husband is a drunkard and does not bring home any money.He just loves to sleep with me. After I conceive he ignores meor physically abuses me. He will pretend to be concentrating onsome work. When the child is born he will deny paternity to thechild by saying that he is not the “real” father of the child. SinceI have experienced all this twice, I decided to go for an abortion.There is no other way I could have handled the situation. In anycase when children are born, I have to provide them with foodwhile he goes around disclaiming his fatherhood.What one may draw from these accounts is that the act of abortiondoes reflect women’s self-determination to deal with specificoppressive condition, but it may not indicate women’s freedomto make the decision to abort. Very often, women’s exclusiveresponsibility of childcare and earning for the family force themto choose abortion as a way out.The burden of the argument so far has been that despite theinfluence of the state’s logic of abortion as a method of familylimitation, women have consciously sought abortion for variousother reasons. Women’s decision to abort seems to be linked toa vector of factors like childcare as their exclusive responsibility,marital conflicts, son preference and belief in astrology and localreligion. Since women do not have control over these socialconditions, their “choice” of abortion is basically to deal withthese situations. The logic of family limitation through abortionas promoted by the state population policy might be influencingwomen’s consciousness on abortion. But how women arrive atthe decision to abort is not based on the received notions of familyplanning or birth control, but on the basis of local, social andcultural conditions and relations that define their lives.IIIWomen, Work and AbortionLet me now turn to the second instance, ie, how work andworking conditions in the informal sector shape and constrainyoung unmarried women’s decisions to abort. Being unmarried,their decisions will disclose to us how reasons other than familylimitation inform abortion. In turn, it will also tell us why weneed to necessarily combine macro-level data which often givesus family limitation as the predominant reason for abortion, withmicro-level details of the actual processes of women’s decision-making. Thus, I will map here the conditions and cultures of workas perceived by women themselves and make an attempt tounravel the complex relation between women’s work and women’ssense of “reproductive entitlement”.7Conditions of WorkLet me begin with the conditions of women’s work. As I havenoted in the introduction, the pharmaceutical companies recruitin large numbers young unmarried girls/women starting from theage of 13. Few young married women are also employed, butmostly as contract labourers. Some companies recruit onlyunmarried young girls/women; and as soon as they get married,they are dismissed from work. Explaining why they recruit byand large unmarried women, the secretary of the pharmaceuticalcompanies association said,Only the young unmarried girls can spend so many hours insidethe company without family responsibilities. Women at the youngage are physically fit for arduous work and they lose their physicalstrength and energy once they get married and have children. Wecannot afford to give them maternity leave, sick leave, etc. Moreover,what we care for is efficiency and concentration in work for whichwe train them. In any case they are like machines with little brain.So if you mould them at a young age, they will be as efficientas machines, and work for as many hours we want them to work.In these units, there are very few men who are usually employedas supervisors, chemists and machine operators. The companiesseem to have consciously avoided recruiting men from nearbyvillages.Women workers are to work from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm withhalf an hour breaks for tea and lunch. They get paid a daily wageranging from Rs 18 to Rs 30. Otherwise they are paid a monthlywage of Rs 1,500. If there is overtime work, they are paid Rs2to Rs 10 per hour depending on the unit in which they work.Many of the workers commute for work every day. The com-panies deduce the transport charge and tea charge from the wage,which leave the workers with a monthly earning ranging fromRs 600 to Rs 800. In order to save the money that is spent oncommuting, many girls, even from far away villages, walk longdistances to the companies.The units are very strict about the timings and if the workeris late even by a few minutes, that day’s salary is cut. Almostall the companies do not cover the medical expenses of theworkers, though they are exposed to various chemical-relatedhealth hazards. Very few companies give bonus once a year andin some of them, the contract workers are denied bonus. The usualmethod used by these companies to deny bonus to the contractlabourers is to send them out of work just before bonus is declared.Some companies routinely dismiss the contract workers after
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071057every six months of employment, known as “giving a break”,in order to avoid offering permanent jobs to them. These com-panies are also arbitrary about the salary paid and offeringpermanent job and other benefits. Even those who have workedfor several years may not get a permanent job while theirfavouritescould.The women workers in the pharmaceutical companies areengaged in a variety of work, which can be broadly identifiedas batch taking, mixing, liquid or powder filling, blister packing,strip packing, bottle washing and packing, fixing of labels andloading and stacking of medicine filled carton boxes.8Mixingthe ingredients specified by the chemist for the preparation ofdrugs, sieving of the powder as well as broken pieces of capsulesand tablets, packing them in bottles and as strips, filling of liquidsin bottles and bottle washing are all done exclusively by womenworkers. As soon as the workers enter the company, the super-visors will divide them into various groups and allot each groupspecified tasks for the day, and each worker in the group hasto complete the target set for her and, otherwise, bound to losethe job.Usually the new entrants as well as illiterate women workersare assigned to do bottle washing which is back-breakingandverydemanding. A 17-year old worker who has now leftthecompany, described the bottle washing work in thefollowingway:When myself and my cousin joined this company we were giventhe bottle-washing job. It is only later on, after looking at myeducational qualifications, they shifted me to another section.Bottle washing is a horrible job. We have to lift 1000s of bottlesin a sack to the wash area without breaking them and wash themall. It will take the entire day and even more than the usual workinghours to wash, dry and dump them in the packing section. Mycousin used to complain of itches and blisters in her hand andI had once sustained serious injury due to a broken glass bottle…The women workers also complained about high targets beingset for filling of tablets and liquids and for packing in boxes andalso about how they have to keep pace with machines especiallyin the packaging section. Most women workers find these jobsconsiderably less demanding when compared to lifting and loadingof heavy boxes, which also has targets.Work and SexualityIt is not just the targets, heavy workloads and health hazardsthat the women workers are swarmed with. Any lapses on thepart of the workers often lead to losing the job and they are alsosubjected to verbal and physical abuses by male supervisors andchemists. The power of the chemists and supervisors invariablyrevolves around sexual abuse of young unmarried workers andin regulating female sexuality within the factory in general. Formany young unmarried girls, meeting the sexual demands ofsupervisors and the chemists seem to be the only way out of theharsh working conditions. Though I have several testimoniesabout the sexual exploitation by the supervisors and chemists,let me give a single instance as an illustration. Talking abouthow sexual exploitation by supervisors is rampant in her companyand what it has done to women workers, a 37-year old womanworker noted in the course of a FGD:In our company, a young supervisor has a sexual relationship withan elder woman and he purposely overlooks her mistakes in work.Now he has given a job to her daughter… Almost all the supervisorsin this company are like this and there is no exception. Anothergirl in our company was seduced and raped by a supervisor. Butshe was under the illusion that he would marry her. Ultimately,he denied having any sexual relation with her. She had to undergoan abortion and was very sick. Now she has left the job too.There are rules and norms that each company imposes toregulate female sexuality within its premises. For instance,almostall the companies have the rule that no woman workershould talk to any male worker except the male supervisors.Supervisors are assigned the task of monitoring the behaviourof women workers, especially the young unmarried womenworkers. If the workers are found violating this rule, they areoften dismissed from the job. Rules like these invest the super-visors withenormous power, which they manipulate to sexuallyexploit the women workers. Further, as we noted earlier, somecompanies strictly prohibit married women from work and others,if they employ married women, dismiss them as soon as theyget to know ofthe worker’s pregnancy. Given all this, it isimportant to analyse how women workers, especially the youngunmarried womennegotiate these conditions of work. For it isin resisting and in negotiating with the working conditions, theunmarried women workers seem to have exercised their “choice”in reproductive control.For many young unmarried women there is no escapefromharshworking conditions as they are forced to earn incomefor the family. Often they are the sole breadwinners and,therefore,do not want to give up the wage work but, instead,try and negotiate the conditions of work. Apart from domesticeconomic compulsions, women workers also feel factory workas an escape from household work and also the familial controlexercised over their physical mobility. For instance, a 17-yearold woman worker said, “We do not feel so great working inthe company. But unlike our mothers we do not have to toil underthe sun. Besides, I like going out to work since I can dress upwell. If I am at home I will not have been allowed to dress uplike this.”Despite harsh working conditions, the strict rules regulatingfemale sexuality and the power of supervisors, the women workerscompensate for these by minimalist defiance of rules by vicarioustalk about love and sexual affairs. A 28-year old married womanworking in one of these companies noted, “A major pass timefor the unmarried girls in the company is to talk about love affairs…even during the break for tea the girls would talk about theirpartners and love affairs. They would even forego their tea forthe sake of chatting. Only married women like us consume tea.”Many of them subvert the company rules by speaking to the maleco-workers through the mask, which is given to them as aprotective gear. The supervisors cannot make out whether theyare speaking to each other or not. The workers would also usesign languages to communicate with each other.To escape the surveillance of the company, the women workerschoose their partners from other companies. Narrating how theunmarried girls circumvent the rules enforced by the company,a middle-aged working women observed:When I worked in the…company, many young girls used to havelove affairs. The company people will not get to know this, asthe workers would consciously work out relationships only withmen of other companies. On the way to work and on their wayback home they relate to each other. Some get married but mostget deserted.Also most of the women workers postpone marriages even afterfinding partners since marrying will lead to the loss of job. Theprolonged courtship which, at one level, is the result of the rulesof employment of pharmaceutical companies, seems to be areason for increased sexual encounters and hence abortion.
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071058Despite such quotidian forms of resistance, the dominantreality is one of unmarried women workers being forced tonegotiate the burden of work and work culture throughregulation of their sexuality.9 Explaining how the workinggirls socialise with their higher authorities in their companiesthat are men, an 18-year-old girl stated:All these don’t take place inside the company as they are verystrict about rules and we can’t even talk to men. But the girls andsupervisors or chemists would fix their meetings elsewhere andeven stay out. We know many such cases. All of them don’t getmarried. In fact, we know no case of a marriage between thesupervisor and the girl who worked here. Abortion is bound totake place. We know about it. What else we can do? Not that allthe girls do these kind of things. Supervisors are the main culpritsand they should be blamed for all this.Giving a specific instance of a case of a young woman whohad recently undergone an abortion, a 19-year-old fellow workerfrom the same village noted,She comes from a poor family and her family is dependent onher wages. She is involved with the supervisor who is marriedand has no intention to marry this girl. She has had at least twoabortions. The benefit that she gets for all this is she has beenmade a permanent employee and she has even taken one monthleave which none of us would be allowed to take. She also doesnot put in that much of work as we do.In short, there are two key aspects that are clearly evidentregarding women’s wage work and the regulation of their sexu-ality. First is the compliance of young unmarried women workersin sexual relationships with their male authorities as a way ofnegotiating harsh working conditions. The other is the sexualrelationship of young unmarried girls as a resistance to theregulation of female sexuality by the companies. The complexplay of these two elements – resistance and compliance – areclosely related to the incidence of abortion.Almost all of them whom we interviewed, including the workingwomen, said that there is an increase in the rate of abortions amongunmarried women after they have begun to work in the com-panies. Two doctors from the private clinics located in fivekilometre distance from the companies, stated that in a monthon an average six to seven unmarried women workers, mainlyworking in the pharmaceutical companies, seek abortion services.A doctor who runs a clinic in Mahapalipuram said,I started this clinic nine years ago. From that time I have seenan increase in the number of young unmarried girls coming forabortion. The girls who work in the pharmaceutical companiesare the ones who come to me for abortion… They are mostly inthe age group of 17-18 years and they come with their mothersor with their friends. Some do come with their partners.This was also confirmed in our interview with a doctor of aprivate clinic at Thiruporur. She observed that before the arrivalof the companies, the number of cases of abortion among un-married women used to be only two or three and now it hasincreased up to 10 in a month.IVChanging Norms Outside the FactoryThe increase in women’s employment in the informal sectorhas led to marked changes in the norms that govern women’ssexuality outside the factory domain. Though this is a complexstory wherein the unemployed men trying to exercise control overthe physical mobility, earnings and sexuality of employed women10and women trying to assert their autonomy, there are two distinctaspects, which need special mention here. These are (1) greatersurveillance leading to greater secrecy, and (2) inability of thevillage community to exercise old forms of power over women’ssexuality. Let me begin with a statement made by an elderlywoman, in one of the FGDs:In those days the caste panchayat was called to discuss love affairsand it either separated the lovers or ordered wedding. If a girlbecame pregnant, she was able to deliver the baby and the girl’sfamily looked after both of them until they found a boy for themarriage. There was no taboo attached to those who gave birthto a child before marriage. There was community support evenfor those who made the mistake. Nowadays girls are not afraidof their parents. They decide on their marriage. Even if the motheragrees for the wedding either the brother or the father createsproblems. So the girls run away and get married. What can onedo about it? The girl’s brother or the uncle keeps a vigil over herwhen she goes out to work especially if she is travelling by bus.To escape this the girls find some secret places with her loverand if anything happens she would go to the clinic straight [foran abortion]. Now where is the need for the panchayat? In anycase, panchayat decisions do not bind these people, as the loversof these girls are from outside the village.The statement underscores the contradictory outcomes of women’semployment, outside the factory domain. While women havegreater autonomy, this has also led to greater surveillance by men.While earlier the community panchayat had mechanisms tosupportwomen who got pregnant before marriage, these arenolonger available and pregnancies have to be terminated insecrecy.Explaining how abortion in most cases is a result of the failureof women workers to negotiate marriage with “outsiders”, an 18-year old working girl contended that abortion has to be a secretaffair as the girls are not in a position to negotiate the social valuesand social hierarchies. She remarked:If a girl becomes pregnant [before marriage], no one questionsthe partners as they are from outside the village. Marriage mightnot be possible with that person. So, they go with their parentsto the abortion clinics. It is a secret affair. Very few in the villageget to know about it. When the girls undergo abortion, they takeleave for two days and get back to work soon after. Usually theytell others that they were down with fever or headache or somesuch things.Secrecy being the burden of those who undergo abortions, theyhave to be careful about choosing the doctors and the clinics thatdo not divulge the details particularly to those who belong tothe village. Therefore, irrespective of the exorbitant cost at theprivate clinics,11women prefer to go there in order to “save thefamily honour”. Also money brings them honourable treatmentby the doctors. The following is the explanation given by anunmarried woman for why they go to private clinics and not tothe government hospitals for abortion: “If we want to have anabortion we never go to a government hospital. Over there theymisbehave even with married women who go for abortions. Withunmarried women, they take greater liberty to ridicule andinsult…That’s why most of us prefer private clinics where it iskept as a secret and the doctors understand the problem better.All we need is money for abortion. We also need not give outall details to private doctors.”What seems to be clear from the above accounts is thatunwantedpregnancy and abortion often occur in the context ofstrengthening of patriarchal values even while women try toaffirm their new-found autonomy. The new patriarchal socialnormsultimately limit the “choice” and “free will” of women.At best, abortion practices of employed unmarried women emerge

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