Gender and Reproductive Health Justice for South Asian Immigrant Communities

Reflection from SAALT’s 2016–2017 Young Leaders Institute


Gen­der jus­tice has always been a deep pas­sion of mine, espe­cial­ly as a South Asian woman who grew up in the South.  It was while I was in high school in Atlanta, Geor­gia that I real­ized I was not receiv­ing com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion regard­ing repro­duc­tive health such as con­tra­cep­tion and con­sent.  My school offered absti­nence-only edu­ca­tion.  This has clear short­com­ings, which in tan­dem with the taboo nature of repro­duc­tive health con­ver­sa­tions with­in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty cre­at­ed a cul­ture of igno­rance, fear, and avoid­ance sur­round­ing this very impor­tant top­ic.

While I strength­ened my under­stand­ing of repro­duc­tive health in col­lege and beyond, I under­stood that I was par­tic­u­lar­ly priv­i­leged to have this option.  So many mem­bers of my com­mu­ni­ty did not have this access, and I was not sure how to cre­ate path­ways to this infor­ma­tion strate­gi­cal­ly or effec­tive­ly.  When I learned of SAALT’s Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI), I thought this would be an impor­tant oppor­tu­ni­ty for me to learn the tools and strate­gies to cre­ate the change I want­ed to see.

An impor­tant aspect that I explored through YLI was the fact that South Asians are often mis­un­der­stood in Amer­i­ca to be exclu­sive­ly upper or mid­dle-class “mod­el minori­ties.” How­ev­er this nar­ra­tive eras­es South Asians that do not fit into this stereo­type, includ­ing immi­grant women who often lack access to edu­ca­tion, lan­guage acqui­si­tion, a career, finan­cial secu­ri­ty, and health­care, result­ing in bar­ri­ers to access­ing repro­duc­tive choice. Addi­tion­al­ly, neg­a­tive stereo­types about South Asians con­tribute toward racial pro­fil­ing and even vio­lence against South Asian women. For exam­ple, in Indi­ana, only two women to date have been pros­e­cut­ed under the statewide feti­cide bill — and both were Asian women, even though Asian women make up less than one per­cent of Indi­ana’s pop­u­la­tion. While a gen­er­al lack of knowl­edge about South Asian women’s access to repro­duc­tive health and rights may seem like a harm­less issue, there are indeed actu­al vic­tims and con­se­quences.

As part of the YLI 2016 cohort, I attend­ed a two-day con­ven­ing in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land in July. The week­end includ­ed sev­er­al guest speak­ers, work­shops, and activ­i­ties relat­ed to orga­niz­ing with­in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty.  In these work­shops, we learned about the his­to­ry of South Asian immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States, the laws and poli­cies that stim­u­lat­ed waves of immi­gra­tion into the U.S., the ways that South Asians have expe­ri­enced increased hate vio­lence after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, and about orga­nized move­ments against immi­grants, South Asians, and Mus­lims. The ses­sion that I enjoyed the most was facil­i­tat­ed by Lak­sh­mi Sri­daran, Pol­i­cy Direc­tor at SAALT, and con­cerned the his­to­ry of South Asian immi­gra­tion into the Unit­ed States. Before her pre­sen­ta­tion, we placed the year in which our own fam­i­lies immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States on a makeshift time­line, which cen­tered all of us in U.S. immi­gra­tion his­to­ry.

For my project in YLI specif­i­cal­ly, I am work­ing to inter­view sev­er­al South Asian women with immi­grant back­grounds about their expe­ri­ences with repro­duc­tive health­care. SAALT’s Young Lead­ers Insti­tute helped me under­stand how diverse the South Asian pop­u­la­tion is in the Unit­ed States, and how impor­tant it is to draw from a diverse range of indi­vid­u­als, by pay­ing atten­tion to sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus, and immi­gra­tion sta­tus when choos­ing peo­ple to inter­view. While it will be a chal­leng­ing task for me giv­en the lim­i­ta­tions of my own com­mu­ni­ty and who I know, branch­ing out beyond inter­view­ing upper mid­dle-class Indi­an women will be cru­cial for my project.

YLI also pro­vid­ed me with incred­i­ble insight, strate­gic guid­ance and help­ful tech­niques to start con­duct­ing my project. Although I have always con­sid­ered myself a fem­i­nist and intend­ed to cen­ter my project on women, one of the activ­i­ties dur­ing the SAALT con­ven­ing forced me to real­ize that I often think about immi­grant sto­ries from a male per­spec­tive. When prompt­ed to reflect on my mother’s expe­ri­ences emi­grat­ing to Amer­i­ca, I real­ized that I knew far more about my father’s expe­ri­ence than my mother’s. This was an impor­tant moment mov­ing for­ward – I learned that I need to make a con­scious effort to cen­ter women’s sto­ries in my work.

By open­ing up this con­ver­sa­tion at least on a per­son­al lev­el, I hope to enhance my own under­stand­ing of repro­duc­tive health with­in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty, as well as expand the con­ver­sa­tion into the com­mu­ni­ty with­in a cul­tur­al­ly com­pe­tent frame­work.  South Asians are the most rapid­ly grow­ing facet of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, and the opac­i­ty sur­round­ing sex­u­al­i­ty and repro­duc­tive health issues can neg­a­tive­ly impact fam­i­lies with­in the com­mu­ni­ty for decades to come.

I am incred­i­bly grate­ful to SAALT and the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute for empow­er­ing me with tools to begin this explo­ration.

Anusha Ravi
Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress