Sarojini N

The Way We Were: Building and re-building feminist health activism

My involvement with the women’s movement began in 1989. The campaign against population control policies, anti-fertility vaccines and unethical clinical trials of hormonal contraceptives in the late 1980s and 1990s marked a watershed. Being associated with strong feminist organizations, I could actively participate in these campaigns. The women’s movement in India at that time was addressing issues of patriarchy, violence against women, poverty, livelihoods, sex selective abortions and population policies. Some of the women’s groups had their roots in the public health movement, civil liberties, Left parties and other movements associated with livelihoods and environmental issues.

Women’s and health rights activists had been raising questions about the safety of hormonal contraceptive technologies, the way in which clinical trials are conducted, collection of informed consent, and the family planning programme’s inadequate efforts towards women’s health in general. There was a strong protest against the inclusion of women in the healthcare system essentially as reproductive beings, with the exclusion of their other health needs. The target-based population control programme of the Indian government, with its emphasis on peddling dangerous contraceptives into women’s bodies, sparked discussions amongst those of us more inclined to engage with women’s health issues. In particular, it was the campaign against injectable contraceptives and implants that broadened my perspective, helping us make these connections, and lending fresh vigour and insight to our work.

The Depo campaign from 1992-94 was full of debates, confrontations and adventures. The fine line between coercion and choice, and the complicit role of many sections of society, were challenges that we were facing in campaigns against population policies and hormonal contraceptives. These continue to extend themselves to newer forms of medical and reproductive technologies in today’s context as well. We found ourselves confronting questions of choice, state policy and systemic violence, in ways both new and old. The medicalisation of poor women’s bodies was disguised in a language of ‘choice’ and ‘progress’, and was in turn masking the private profiteering of the big pharmaceutical companies, the gross neglect and under-development of the country’s social systems, and the violation of women’s rights to bodily integrity and health. We were all full of energy, and every single meeting was useful for our political growth. Personally, for me as an individual, the campaign enabled me to demystify deeply hierarchical and technical knowledge systems. There were many interesting debates, especially with the Drug Controller General of India and the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The campaign itself saw many phases. Sometimes more groups used to join in, and sometimes there were fewer of us. In either case, enthusiasm and commitment were high, as the campaign itself was an exploration. Interacting with friends at AIDWA, Jagori and Saheli was, and continues to be, a learning experience. An incident that I remember particularly was when a group of us, frustrated with the DCGI’s refusal to give us an appointment for our repeated requests or return our calls, decided to gatecrash and gherao their office premises. Many in the media labeled our actions undemocratic. When we did attempt more ‘civil’ methods of dialogue, we were shut out; as such, we resorted to more ‘disobedient’ ways to voice our protest.

In a similar incident, we sought to participate in a meeting with Max Parma (the pharmacy company), but were refused and physically stopped. Left with no other alternative, we jumped over the wall and forced our way in. A photograph of my ‘unfeminine’ ways in action (I was jumping over a gate) appeared in the front pages of most newspapers the next day. Unsurprisingly, a section of the press accused us of not behaving like ‘dignified’ women. We were labeled anti-choice, anti-development, anti-technology and anti-feminine. We were also charged with sensationalism, when we felt quite frankly, like the subjects of sensationalism!

The positive outcome of our protest was that they were kept out of the Family Planning programmes but they are all over the market. There are many larger challenges before us that needed a constant reflection. On whose behalf were we speaking? Did we always represent the interests of the average Indian woman? How do we translate the findings from our grassroots work into political demands in an increasingly liberalized global economy? How do we influence policy design? What are the spaces available to us without getting ‘co-opted’ ?

These are questions from our collective work of eighteen years ago that are relevant to our work in any time and space. When I discuss feminist  activism today with my younger colleagues, their experiences seem both similar and dissimilar. According to Anjali, who is twenty six with four years of work behind her, not much has changed with regard to the perception of the women’s movement, as the trend of being labeled anti-women and anti-progress continues even today. This is especially true for feminists engaged in political questions that lie at the interface of public health and women’s rights. Anjali is an active participant in the campaign around the unethical nature of HPV vaccine trials in the country, and recounts being (mis) represented by the supporters of the vaccine as someone who is uncomfortable with issues of sexuality. She also points to what she sees as a shift today in the very nature of feminist activism, given a context where state hegemony is more entrenched and powerful than before. I do agree with her; the narrative and movement towards a certain type of development has buy-in from a vast and formidable range of players- state, non-state and super-state. These include big corporations and international donors, who exercise control over state and civil society alike. That there has been fragmentation is undeniable, and as such, the movement must re-invent itself, and mobilize, organize and link-up in ways that can respond to the changing times. Feminist activism, then or now, cannot be seen as a monolith, and feminist activists must ask of themselves and others many of the same questions. There has been some positive signs of some young feminists are starting to question the meaning of ‘choice’ and medicalisation of women’s bodies in the recent past. Though different contexts come with different compulsions, I would like to believe that commitment has not waned.  I hope that these discussions will lead to a renewed political understanding of women’s health.


Sarojini N, Sama Resource Group for Women and Health

April 18, 2011