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.
Center for American Progress