Sapna Kedia is a Technical Specialist at ICRW Asia, the 3D Program's lead partner in India, where she also serves as 3D Program Manager
In 2018, a team of researchers from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), with support from Promundo, conducted an exploratory qualitative research study on ‘Exploring Male Engagement in Premarital Abortion’. We considered this a very exciting opportunity and an opportunity to address an evidence gap. Premarital sex and abortion are a taboo subject in India and there is limited evidence around the journeys of young men and women and how they respond to a situation of unintended pregnancy before marriage. Additionally, we were looking at the whole issue from the perspective of youg men. This was new for all of us. As women, we have often engaged informally about the different standards around sex for women and men. This research called upon us to be objective, to speak to men, hear their stories and present our findings in an unbiased manner.
Recruiting participants for the study was very difficult. We had a detailed ethics board approve the recruitment strategy for the participants and had to be extremely mindful of not putting them at any risk. The process of finding participants for our study and their reluctance to speak with us highlighted the extent of the taboo that surrounds premarital relationships and sex. It also pointed towards the existence of a parallel world behind the veil of taboo, which everybody is aware of but does not wish to acknowledge. At the same time, we found some young men and women who are challenging these taboos, have faced struggles in the process, and were willing to share their journeys with us.
While talking to young men and women who had a premarital abortion, young men and women in general and service providers and experts on the issue, we found that premarital sex among young men and women is a widely prevalent open secret, whose incidence seems to have increased. Though marriage continues to hold the place as the ideal institution for the expression of sexuality and maintenance of caste/faith endogamy, young men and women constantly navigate between accepting themselves as sexual beings and conforming to social norms that restrict their sexual expression. The extent to which young people break away and question these norms impacts how they navigate the stigma of premarital pregnancy and how they respond to it.
An infographic featured in the study Exploring Male Engagement in Premarital Abortion. From ICRW.org.
With regards to male involvement, we found the prevalence of perceptions that unmarried men in premarital relations are oversexed, exploitative and irresponsible. However, study narratives reveal that an increasing number of men are showing up with and supporting their partners through abortions. Men acted as an all-in-one service provider-of-sorts for their partners: they sought information about pregnancy kits, abortion pills, clinics, purchases medicated, spoke to doctors, accompanied their partners to the clinics and paid for the abortion. Service-providers shared that male presence at clinics has increased and more men are coming forth and speaking to them about the abortion process and its implications on their partner’s health.
Young men described their experience of the sex-to-abortion and post-abortion journey as a tightrope between gendered masculinities and vulnerabilities. Due to traditional gender roles, men view women as vulnerable and may feel pressured act as the protector which project strenth and view women as vulnerable. This was reflected in several of our narratives. Men (especially those from middle-income groups) thought it was their responsibility to preserve and protect their partner’s reputation and honor and felt duty bound to support her. Men across classes felt guilty if they were not able to provide the support that they felt was primarily their responsibility.
The shame and stigma around premarital sex may compel men to stay with their partners, since they have no one else or end the relationship. Men shared that they were afraid of being considered sexual predators and as a result some of them supported their partners behind-the-scenes due to fear. They preferred waiting outside clinics rather than a direct interaction with service-providers because they were afraid of being reprimanded. They also described love and concern for their partners and her health. Further, the degree of personal freedom and mobility that young men and women enjoy also determined the extent of male involvement. Economically independent female participants who lived away from home did not depend on their male partners as much.
As a researcher, what stood out the most for me during this study was to hear men talk about their vulnerabilities. For many of them, their conversation with us was the first time they were speaking about the abortion with anybody. Many of them shared how they felt alone, pressured and scared and did not know where to get the right information. They felt reluctant to reach out, even amongst their peers and had only spoken to that ‘one trusted friend’ to seek information. They had not discussed their feelings of guilt for not doing enough and their fear of responding to the situation alone.
On June 2, 2019, Sapna was featured on a panel discussion on Abortion Law and Abortion Rights in India, hosted by the Indian news channel Tiranga TV, moderated by Indian reporter Barkha Dutt. The panel's discussion included a host of issues and questions related to abortion, the law and legal perspectives, abortion rights, and male engagement and access to services in India.
The study highlighted a pressing need to engage with young men and women around issues of sexual pleasure, consent, contraception and their legal rights around abortion in India. Young men and women navigate a situation of an unintended pregnancy with a high degree of fear and vulnerability and a lack of information. This makes them susceptible to exploitation. It is also important to engage with service-providers to ensure that they provide abortion services in a non-judgmental manner. It is crucial to create avenues where young men and women can access these services and gain necessary and timely information. At the same time, there is a need to engage with schools, parents and community on the stigma about pre-marital sex and its costs.
Over the course of the past one year, we have presented the study at various conferences and the response has been heartwarming. A mother of two adolescent boys came up to us and shared how she often reprimands her boys for not being careful with their female partners. However, listening to our study findings made her think about the need to understand her sons’ vulnerabilities, speak to them and understand how they may be trying to match up to some existing norms. Very recently, a young unmarried woman who had an abortion, shared that her experience with her male partner was heart-breaking and she really feels that its necessary to understand why men behave the way they do.
A key takeaway from this experience has been the reiteration of the need to engage with men as stakeholders for gender equity, including work around sexual and reproductive health, and to capture their perceptions and their experiences. Many of us working towards gender equity recognize that this is challenging. We understand that men exercise and enjoy a lot of privilege and power. However, within that framework, how do we talk to men about their vulnerabilities? How do we create spaces where men can share their experiences with social and gender norms without turning these into a ‘victim card’? These are the questions the study has left me with.