Rowena Arshad discusses contraception and controlling poor women's bodies



In this extract Rowena Arshad describes similarities between the reproductive control of working-class women in Glasgow and in India.

Controlling women’s bodies in the UK and worldwide

In developing countries in the post-war period, contraception and abortion were sometimes used as a way of controlling underprivileged populations or using them as medical guinea pigs. As the feminist movement in Britain developed, black women were instrumental in drawing attention to how women across the world experienced inequality and lack of control over their bodies in different ways. In The Heart of the Race: Black women's lives in Britain (London: Virago Press,1985), Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe wrote:

Black women had to point out that they had ‘always been given abortions more readily than white women and are indeed often encouraged to have terminations we didn’t ask for. It’s for this reason, too, that when the women’s movement demanded ‘free, safe, and available contraception for all women’, we had to remind them that for Black women this often means being used as guinea-pigs in mass birth control programmes, or as objects of ‘research’ when new forms of birth control need to be tested.

What is Depo-Provera?

Depo-Provera is a contraceptive that is administered through injection every three months. It releases the hormone progesterone, which prevents ovulation, meaning that there is no egg to be fertilised during sex and therefore no pregnancy should occur. Nowadays Depo-Provera is licensed and used by many women as an effective contraceptive. However, it was often tested on minority ethnic women, who were not warned of the potential risks and side effects.

You can find out more about Depo-Provera as well as other forms of contraception on the Family Planning Association website.

Informed choice

It was a central view of women activists in the 1970s that women were not given sufficient information about reproductive options to make informed choices about either having children or looking after their health. Rowena Arshad remembers the issue of Depo-Provera provoking sympathies across borders and races. In the early 1980s she worked with working-class white women in Scotland who realised that they, as well as women in India, had been the subject of commercial experiments with Depo-Provera. Stella Dadzie, however, comments that white women could focus on reproductive and sexual rights to the detriment of other economic or political rights that concerned black women in the UK and around the world.

Why do you think the state might have an interest in controlling the reproductive capacity of women? You might consider reading the dystopian novels by Zoë Fairbairns and Margaret Atwood about extreme state hijacking of the reproductive process, Benefits (1979) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

You can find out more in Changing Cultures and the Arts.

Image details

Oral contraceptives photograph © Getty Images

Depo-Provera photograph © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images



I was just in the cusp, in the beginning stages of putting all those political awareness things into practice at a workplace. SEAD was one such place that allowed me to play with the politics issues. And, and I think the gender/race thing kept coming back in, but also on an international level, because there were two themes I was working on then, I was working, looking at the impact of pharmaceuticals and things on women, and at that time part of the work we were doing was linking Scotland and the wider world on development issues. And I can remember very clearly being sent to work in Ferguslie Park, which is a very poor area in Scotland, very very poor, and learning there that the women had been given Depo-Provera, which was a contraception drug at that time, and thinking, hey, hang on a minute, women in India are being given this as well. Hm, this is very curious. And then realising of course that the drug was being used to control women who society deemed to be irresponsible, shouldn’t be having children, et cetera. So it was used as a population control mechanism. And often without the women knowing the full side-effects of it. And yet the drug was banned in the United States. So, actually, working on really political issues of that kind. And when women in Ferguslie Park discovered this, because in the sessions I was working with them and talking to them, I said, ‘Did you know?’ and they were just angered, really angered to know this. But it was so good, because they were in solidarity with the women in India, and they were saying, ‘Why should the women in India be treated like that? We shouldn’t be treated, they shouldn’t be treated like that.’ And actually, it was putting in practice all those years of reading and learning all these issues in the Eighties, the ’83-’85 period. So that was one very stark one.

Rowena Arshad discusses contraception and controlling poor women's bodies
15 - 16 June 2011
Sound recording
Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
© British Library
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