In 1961, Fannie Lou Harmer, a 44-year-old African-American woman from Mississipi was admitted to the hospital to get a uterine fibroid removed. However, she was also given a hysterectomy without her consent. The procedure was so common that it came to be known as the Mississipi Appendectomy. “In the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of the 10 Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied,” according to this report in PBS.
In 1932, the Tuskegee Institute began studying untreated Syphillis in Black Men without their informed consent. The study that went on for 40 years misled the men and did not give them the required treatment, even when penicillin treatment was widely being used for syphilis.
During the South African apartheid, the white minority government introduced family planning policies for the black. Not too far away, the bodies of women in Zimbabwe became the battleground for political ideologies, as a particular birth-control hormonal injection introduced by colonial powers was banned by the Zimbabwe government as soon as they gained independence.
These are just a few of the many sexual and reproductive injustices faced by POC, that appear in this powerful article by sexual and reproductive health doctor Annabel Sowemimo, in ‘gal-dem zine’.
Racism, ableism, colourism and homophobia have long plagued the health care systems in the world. From Covid-19 impacting BAME groups the hardest in the UK, to disproportionate healthcare insurance available to LGBTQ communities, the list is, unfortunately, a long one. However, perhaps these inequalities are felt most in sexual and reproductive health (SRH) given the years of institutionalised and conditioned racism and white, cisgender and heterosexual (cishet) supremacy. This has all lead to such biopower that has made the bodies of people of colour, especially woman ‘more disposable’.
Imperial powers in an attempt to control populations and curtail choices had introduced draconian laws and policies that continue shaping social attitudes even post colonisation. Be it the thin line between health aid and biopolitics of the Global North, the Victorian law of ‘Sec 377’ that criminalises homosexuality, Trump’s Global Gag Rule restricting abortions, unhealthy attitudes towards hormonal methods of contraception, or unindicated womb removals that continue in certain communities to fulfil capitalist requirements.
According to a report in The Metro, “There are huge health disparities when it comes to sexual reproductive health, from higher rates of STIs and HIV to delayed diagnosis of cervical and prostate cancer.” What’s worse is that these injustices in sexual and reproductive rights have gone unnoticed in the mainstream discourse. Sex education that remains a privilege too has failed to address this.
Echoing these concerns and gaps in our knowledge systems, the British-Nigerian doctor, Annabel Sowemimo founded ‘Decolonising Contraception,’ (DC) a community-based organisation of people of colour (POC) SRH practitioners in the UK that aims to tackle racial and other intersectional justices around contraception while fighting for sexual and reproductive rights of POC.
In their ‘sexfesto’ (manifesto), DC, recognizing the colonial origins of SRH, lays out their belief in full access to reproductive health, safe abortion services and the right to choose. Working with grassroots organisations and practitioners, their approach is driven by the research and interventions sought by POC experiencing racism.
DC works with a multi-disciplinary approach, delivering workshops and panels for public engagement across the country; facilitating research through academia, journalism and consultation and making an impact at a policy level as well as engaging in collective care by creating a safe space for POC to address their concerns. They have held several discussions and talks at SOAS on topics such as ‘SRH in The South Asian Community’; ‘Cismen, Patriarchy and Participation: Can we succeed in developing Male Contraceptives when we continue to live in Patriarchy’; ‘A Decolonised Utopia? Sexual Wellbeing and Pleasure’ and several more.
DC is also coming up with SexFest: ‘a one-day festival collaborating with POC spanning different disciplines from sex educators, creatives, academics and clinicians to deliver a fun festival on everything sexual health and wellbeing.’ Previously to be held in April, this event has now been postponed to a later date due to COVID-19. However, DC continues to run several podcasts and virtual events, especially those relating to sex and reproduction problems during the lockdown as well as continued conversations on racism and decolonising SRH in the wake of BLM movements happening the world over.
For a long time, POC identities have been pigeon-holed in the west, leaving hardly any place for nuance, or the acknowledgement of various issues unique to each community. This holds true in this context too where certain identities are ‘expected’ to exercise their sexuality in specific ways or stereotyped to have certain health problems. Recognizing this, DC states that
“We organise as people of colour but acknowledge this encompasses a wide range of identities that require different targeted approaches to SRH. Within our organisation, we must continuously challenge other forms of prejudice amongst people of colour such as anti-blackness, colourism, antisemitism, islamophobia, classism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism.”
The institution of racism is deeply rooted in colonialism. It needs to be tackled fiercely from the grassroots to the policy level, such that it positively impacts all its intersections. ‘Decolonising Contraception’ is successfully doing this; by voicing and ensuring POC’s rights to their sexual and reproductive health and agency.
Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo