"So, having the abortion was the only way out for me."
What if you’re a single Desi woman and need an abortion?
The debate on abortion is something that is of an extreme taboo within South Asian communities but it is an activity that has grown and taking place possibly much more than thought or acceptable.
The stereotype is a married Desi woman under pressure to have a son but is expecting a daughter, but plenty of young women today do not fit this scenario.
With pre-marital relationships increasing and sexual activity amongst young Desi couples becoming more and more prevalent. The notion of having an abortion can be something a young, single, Desi woman is confronted by if she falls accidentally pregnant out of wedlock.
Reasons for it include unprotected sex, contraception failures, little education about sex and partners who coerce their girlfriends into having sex ‘in the heat of the moment’ and so on.
Abortions within the UK Desi community do take place. According to the Department of Health, 11,743 abortions in 2010 were that of Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian origin. Most of these belonged to the 20-34 age range in the England and Wales region.
Therefore, the Abortion Act passed in 1967 does allow the Desi single woman to have a termination in the UK. And it is perfectly within her right to do so.
In the past years since the Abortion Act, the South Asian community has repeatedly featured as a reason to add more restrictions to the law.
Yet, is this worry fair? Particularly when such a preconception puts Desi women under more pressure during an already difficult situation?
But is being Desi, single and considering an abortion, not an outdated and prejudiced way of thinking?
Because once you are pregnant out of wedlock as a single Desi woman, then the choice of abortion quickly escalates to become a prime option.
We look at this dilemma faced by Desi single women and what they experience.
Who to Tell?
Being a single Desi woman with an unwanted pregnancy does leave the person in a very vulnerable state.
It is a time when support and help are much needed. But who does this woman turn to? Who does she tell?
Without a doubt, she knows if she utters a word to family or relatives the consequences and outcome of such a revelation are going to be disastrous.
Talking about sex within the family is still taboo for most Desi people, so dropping a ‘bombshell’ like this would have dire results, especially, for the single Desi woman concerned.
‘Izzat’, or family name and honour, plays a very major role in many Desi families all over the world and violating it with such ‘unacceptable’ news would definitely not be taken lightly.
Alima* accidentally fell pregnant at 18 and was devastated with fear when she found out.
“I was dating a boy from my college and one thing led to another where both of us started a sexual relationship.
“When my period was late, I realised immediately, something was wrong. I then bought and took a pregnancy test. I was in utter shock to find out I was pregnant because we were using condoms.
“My whole world turned upside down. I became a mess and the toll of being pregnant coming from a strict family tore me to bits.
“I told my boyfriend and we discussed how it could’ve happened. The only explanation was the condom tore or was not on properly.
“Either way, he said he could not help me and suggested abortion as the only option.”
Alima found that she was on her own, as many single Desi women are when it comes to this ‘situation’, therefore, she went on to terminate her pregnancy by herself being supported only by the clinic she attended.
Sharanjit* found herself pregnant while at university and desperate to seek support.
“I remember I was in a huge panic. My boyfriend at the time didn’t want anything to do with it. In fact, he more or less broke up with me.
“I knew I had to turn to someone for help and tell them what I was facing. I felt so alone.
“My closest friend at uni was a guy. So, I felt compelled to tell him, which I did. He was shocked but quickly became the only person around me to help.
“We agreed to keep it a secret from our circle of uni friends.
“He went with me to the clinic on the day of my termination and he looked after me after it, which was a very traumatic time for me.”
Sameena* found herself pregnant at 17 and sought the help of her trusted aunt.
“I knew if my family ever found out that I was pregnant it would be the end of me.”
“When I found out I immediately called my aunt, who was a modern thinking woman and someone I was always open with.
“I knew she would never say anything to my mother who was her elder sister but I was still very very scared.
“She was not pleased but assured me everything would be okay and told me she would help me take care of things.
“She helped me with the appointment and came with me to the clinic. If it was not my aunt, I have no idea how I would’ve got through that time in my life.”
Making the Decision
For some single Desi women, the decision to have a termination can be a very difficult one. Deciding to keep a baby or not has huge implications for the woman both from a cultural and personal perspective.
Keeping the baby means a dramatic change in life for a Desi woman if her parents are in no way understanding or supportive. Because mostly, they only care about reputation, honour and ‘what are the relatives or community going to say’.
So, under these circumstances to keep the baby does mean in most cases being cut-off from family and losing ties with loved ones.
Chandini* is one such person who decided to keep her baby against the wishes of her family.
“When I found out, I immediately felt that against all odds, I am not going to have an abortion.
“The news caused such volatile rip in the family that it was me and my brother on one side and the rest all against the idea of me having the baby.
“My mother was devastated and questioned how at all it was possible that I got pregnant. My father was simply too disappointed to even talk about it.
“My uncle and his wife tried to console me but made it clear that the impact of my decision would affect everyone, even their daughters. They told me to terminate.
“My boyfriend was happy enough to support my decision and said we could live together. Something again my family was totally against apart from my brother, who told me to live my life.
“I had my child, moved in with my boyfriend and lost everyone else in the process. The only person who visits is my brother and I’ve seen or not heard from no one else in my family for years.
“It is a price I had to pay but I’m still happy with my decision.”
Such a decision like Chandini’s would be difficult to make within a strict Desi family, where there is no room for any kind of negotiation. Therefore, giving the pregnant woman very little or no choice.
The shroud of secrecy around the decision of proceeding is often kept by the person and even by family members who know, forever.
Deena* told her mother discreetly that she was pregnant because she felt she could talk to her. However, her mother completely took over the decision-making” process.
“I thought I could confide in my mother because I’ve been able to tell her things about my life unlike many Desi girls who find it hard to communicate ‘everything’.
“But this news she did not take well at all. She took it all out on me saying things like What about your life ahead of you? How stupid are you? What were you thinking?
“She told me not to utter a word to anyone and told me to book an appointment at a termination clinic.
“On the day I went, she knew I was going but acted all normal. I felt emotional and lost and a part of me questioned what I was doing but knew I had no choice when it came to family.
“I remember crying on my way to the clinic and felt totally alone.
“When I got back I did not feel well and my mother told the family I was just ill and needed rest from being ‘run down’.”
Based on the fear of uncontrollable family backlash, their personal safety and a lifetime of stigma, many single Desi women make the decision to have an abortion all by themselves.
Such a decision and responsibility can be huge for the person and means that most likely she has to live with this decision alone too.
Zayda*, who accidentally fell pregnant at university did not even consider telling anyone. She took the decision to have a termination as soon as she found out.
“I saw no point in mentioning my situation to anyone. Because all that would happen is someone would talk and my parents would find out.
“Desi people find it hard to conceal a secret, so without a word, I booked my appointment at a local clinic.
“I did not even tell my boyfriend because he would’ve just lost it and not been of any help anyway.
“I told a friend I was going for a normal check-up because I needed to tell someone where I was ‘that morning’.
“I went and had the procedure done being supported by the medical staff and then put the whole episode behind me.”
There are those Desi women too for whom having an abortion more than once has even been the case.
The Department of Health’s 2016 statistics on women undergoing abortions found 33% of Asian women had previously terminated a pregnancy. This is in comparison to 38% of white women and 48% of black women.
Kamal has had two abortions since being sexually active.
“The first time was traumatic and was an experience I never wanted again.
“But a year later I found myself in exactly the same situation because I was stupid to have unprotected sex by trusting my boyfriend.
“After the second abortion, I did not feel great emotionally and has definitely made me re-think my relationships.”
Hence, making the decision to or not terminate a pregnancy as a single Desi woman, can affect and impact one or many people.
If the decision is made to have an abortion it means it can have emotional side-effects which are often concealed because of a lack of support, the fear of telling anyone and purposely not wanting any medical attention to avoid it being put on record.
This can result in increasing the vulnerability of the single Desi woman even further.
Living with the Decision
After having an abortion, living with the decision for a single Desi woman, may not be so different from any other woman who has gone through the procedure.
However, issues like fear related to Desi culture, family and personal safety can be very different. Therefore, keeping the abortion secret is usually the most common way of dealing with it.
But, a loss of pregnancy will most likely affect the woman’s hormonal cycle. It can be akin to those of an unplanned pregnancy loss.
Thus, for many women who have an abortion, there can be a residue of emotions and feelings that manifest from making the decision to terminate the pregnancy. These can include calm, relief, happiness, sadness, grief, loss, and regret.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, common negative feelings after having an abortion include guilt, anger, shame, remorse, loss of self-esteem, feelings of isolation and loneliness, sleep problems, bad dreams, relationship problems and even thoughts of suicide.
It can also be a trigger for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, which can even arise from still questioning if it was the right thing to do or not.
Many women find it hard to bring an abortion into the narrative of their life. It’s an episode they perhaps want to quickly forget or lock away.
US therapist Trudy Johnson, who herself had an abortion at college and has written about abortion aftercare. From her perspective the experience is:
“A slow burn. It doesn’t affect you until later on. [Many] women have had an abortion, but you think you’re alone. You don’t feel you get to grieve it. … It’s a gut-level thing, a tender place.”
“It’s kind of like a phantom pain. It’s there, but you don’t know why.”
Therefore, highlighting that for many single Desi women this experience will be most likely the same but with the added pressure of life within South Asian culture. Hence, making it much more difficult to openly talk about an abortion.
Sunita* who had an abortion while at college, says:
“Even to this day, I still remember going through the experience and wonder what would’ve happened if I did not go ahead with it.
“A few people found out at college and they told others.
“I felt labelled as a slut, judged and ousted for doing what I had done. They made me feel very dirty and beneath them.
“It was a very difficult time in my life which I do not like to recall as I still feel guilt and remorse.”
Not being able to cope with the aftermath of her abortion, Meena* tried taking her own life.
“I felt so empty, alone and meaningless inside. I tried to cope and put it behind me but for months it kept on affecting my daily life.
“Feeling ashamed and guilty for what I had done, I snapped and took loads of sleeping pills to overdose.
“I was saved by my sister, who found me in the state of not wanting to live anymore and got me help.”
The lack of grieving and allowing acknowledgement of the abortion for some can be difficult, as Halima* explains:
“I never felt anything at the time. My boyfriend came with me and I was out of the clinic shortly after. It was behind me.
“But after a few years passed when I thought about it, I began to feel something had gone, there was a void within me. I began to feel very sad.
“Knowing that I did not feel emotional at the time, now felt it had caught up with me. I found myself uncontrollably crying and having feelings which I didn’t have before.
“I began to realise that I was actually going through a grieving process, which I never allowed myself to have.”
For some Desi women, the thought does not always go away, despite having children and families. Davina* still remembers and recalls it often:
“Having got settled with a family of two children and married life, it is one part of my past life, I find hard to forget, even so many years later.
“Although no one knows about, the fact that I did what I did, makes me live with the decision more or less every day.
“I do wonder what if I had kept the child and what age it would be now. It makes me feel many things including anger, shame, guilt and remorse.”
While there are some women who still recollect having an abortion and find the decision still difficult to live with, a landmark study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that after five years the majority of women studied still felt it was the right decision.
667 participants who had abortions at the start of the study were analysed. A week after seeking care the women were surveyed and then every six months, 11 times in total.
Corinne Rocca, PhD, MPH, one of the researchers says:
“Even if they [the women] had difficulty making the decision initially, or if they felt their community would not approve, our research shows that the overwhelming majority of women who obtain abortions continue to believe it was the right decision.”
Therefore, indicating that not all women suffer emotionally after having an abortion.
Aleema* had an abortion during her first year in college. She feels she did the right thing.
“I knew there was no way I could have a baby. My life would’ve been completely finished. I have no idea what my parents would’ve thought or done.
“So, without saying anything to anyone apart from my best friend, I arranged everything myself and she went with me when I had the termination.
“I still feel the decision was the right thing for me at that time in my life. I don’t regret it and just see it as my past.”
Interestingly, the study did find that about 70% of the women reported feeling that their communities would stigmatise them if they knew they had an abortion.
Making stigma a major issue irrespective of background. However, if the women were from a South Asian background being studied it would be interesting to see what this measure would be.
Sukhjeet recalls the time she made the decision, saying:
“When the test showed me I was pregnant, I freaked out.
“The only thing I could think of was the stigma and how I would be shunned by my family and especially, the community. I would’ve got tainted for life.
“So, having the abortion was the only way out for me. I never really think about it apart from seeing it as an episode in my life.”
Being a Desi woman, single and in need of an abortion has many implications and depends on the individual and her circumstances.
From finding out you are pregnant, to making the decision to go ahead with a termination and then living with having gone through the procedure can affect women in different ways as we have discovered.
However, there is no doubt that the ‘Desi’ aspect for women makes the whole process much more challenging. Especially, when it comes to family and the community.
Post-abortion support is also something that many Desi women who might need it, do not take up, due to the major factor of secrecy. Hence, there could be many Desi women who may even still be vulnerable currently, living with the burden of making the decision.
Whether a Desi single woman opts for an abortion or not, it will still be seen as the way to keep her life intact. Because otherwise unless her family are very understanding; it is inevitable she will suffer the Desi wrath of the unacceptance of getting pregnant out of wedlock.