An Innocent Child
The media seems to be obsessing over the pregnancy of a ten year old girl in India, especially after the Supreme Court of India rejected an appeal for an abortion. The girl is 32 weeks pregnant, and Indian Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act of 1971 states that abortion is not allowed after 20 weeks, unless doctors determine that the pregnancy is putting the mother’s life at risk. She was allegedly raped by her mother’s cousin, a man who is now arrested and awaiting trial. The family is distraught, and although they have accepted the court’s decision, continues to be frustrated as they witness the media exploit the tragic situation. The father reportedly asked the BBC, “Why are you advertising my daughter’s case? The press have turned this into a business enterprise.”
An Indian Tragedy
Although the girl’s name cannot be revealed due to legal reasons, this has not stopped the press from intruding in the family’s private life, attempting to get every last bit of information. They have gone through great lengths to do so, often pretending they are child workers and entering the house when the father isn’t home. Both doctors and the girl’s parents, have decided not to tell her that she is pregnant, but instead that she is experiencing abdominal pain due to a stone in her stomach which is causing it to bulge. Family friends told the BBC that the happy girl is, “very innocent and has no idea what’s happened to her.”
The situation has sparked a wave of anger and frustration in India, a country where one child under the age of 10 is raped every 13 hours, and 50% of those girls are related to or familiar with their abusers. 240 million women in India were married before they were 18, which has resulted in a high percentage of teen pregnancies. Many girls are forced to discontinue their education after giving birth or getting married, as they are burdened with the difficult task of motherhood. But perhaps the greatest risk of child pregnancy apart from the naiveness and unpreparedness, is the possibility of dying during labor. An estimated 45,000 adult women die per year in India while giving birth, and the chances of a child under 15 dying during childbirth is almost 3 times greater than that of a woman who is in her 20s.
Thus, this is certainly not the first time that the Indian government has denied the right to abortion to an “invisible child”. Earlier this year, the court neglected a woman the right to abort knowing that the 26-week old fetus would be born with down syndrome. In July, a 15 year old girl gave birth in the bathroom of her school in Delhi. Teenage and child pregnancies can be largely attributed to India’s traditions of early-marriage, gender roles, and particularly high level of abuse. Historically, India has been one of the leading countries for child pregnancies and child mortality rates. During the past few years, awareness of the epidemic and new legislation have proved successful in reducing the numbers of adolescent pregnancies. However, there is still a lack of comprehensive education on the subject, and a greater lack of access to contraceptives.
What is Being Done?
Education should be at the forefront for resolving this epidemic. Sustainable Development Goal 4- Ensuring inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning- was discussed during a side event at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) at the UN Headquarters in New York. During the side event, “Making SDG 4’s Commitment to Universal, Free Education Vital,” speakers from Pakistan, Serbia, and the Global Campaign for Education discussed various education systems and the unique challenges that all entail. However, the one thing that they all agreed was that universal education has the potential to reduce inequalities and poverty levels. In India, education and schooling for girls would not only help the country to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, but it would also inform the girls and allow them to receive appropriate counseling on contraceptives, prevention, and the perils of teenage pregnancies.
The Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ), is an NGO based in New Delhi that focuses on reproductive and sexual rights of women in marginalized communities with regard to maternal health and rights, right to safe abortion, and informed choice in contraception and quality of care in family planning programs. Other NGOs like Save the Children have spoken out on the issue as well, arguing that teenage bodies are not equipped to manage pregnancies and the newborns are often faced with challenges such as malnutrition. An amendment bill to the MTP is up for debate, suggesting an extension for the permissible period for abortion, and exemption for women whose foetus’ are detected to have an abnormality. Unfortunately, the bill has not been passed yet, although the Contemporary Women’s Movement and Women’s Education in India has made a tremendous effort to bring gender issues to the forefront of development planning and defining feminist politics. The UN, Women's Movements, and now, the media which is bringing to light cases such as this one, are making it increasingly difficult for the Indian government to continue to turn a blind eye to the problem at hand. In fact, I believe that the press coverage this case is receiving, is a wake up call not only for India, but for the world, that something must be done to protect these children.