Interview with Leila Hessini

leila_hessini_th About Leila: Leila Hessini, originally from Algeria, is a global feminist leader and activist with over twenty years of advocacy, grant-making and organizing experience. She directs Ipas’s community engagement work, co-leads its global stigma and discrimination efforts and is a founding member of inroads (The International Network for the Reduction of Abortion Discrimination and Stigma).  She serves as Chair of the Global Fund for Women board and is a member of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights and the Safe Abortion Action Fund boards. She is an advisor to the Urgent Action Fund, the Center for Women’s Leaderships’ 16th days of activism against gender-based violence and the International Museum of Women’s Muslim Women’s Art and Voices project.  

GS: How would you define Abortion Stigma? LH: Abortion Stigma is the socially-constructed belief that abortion is wrong.  Stigma discredits individuals, communities and institutions associated with abortion and marks them as inferior. Abortion stigma is a major contributor to the social, medical and legal marginalization of abortion worldwide.

GS: Why did you think that stigma is important and should be adopted as a network?

LH: I believe that efforts to increase women’s access to and control over safe, legal, affordable abortions will be limited unless we incorporate a stigma lens and practice into our work and that we need a global community of practice and action to make this happen.  Through inroads we will further the ability of individuals and organizations to share strategies, tools and resources for understanding and mitigating abortion stigma.  Together we believe that we can envision and advocate for a world where abortion stigma is a thing of the past.

GS: Explain stigma in Asian context how it perpetuates and manifests in Asian Societies- Key concerns relevant to Asia?

LH: Abortion stigma is a complex issue and understanding its manifestations in different countries and regions is challenging.  I am not an Asian expert and think that ASAP has a lot to offer in terms of furthering our understanding on how stigma plays out at different levels across Asia.  Given that the region has such diversity in terms of abortion policies and practices, we might ask the manifestation of abortion stigma differs in countries like India where abortion is legal, to others like Pakistan where it is legally restricted?  As ASAP works with many providers, you might want to investigate how they do or don’t experience stigma and what types of individual attributes, social support and skills enable them to resist stigma?  Another important area of focus is how stigma plays out for women who come from socially-marginalized groups such as young women who are sexually active, women from non-dominate religions and those who don’t ascribe to socially-sanctioned gender norms?  In countries like Indonesia and others, the evidence shows that women are often accessing misoprostol so how does the use of pills to terminate a pregnancy impact abortion stigma?  Studies in Thailand point to the use of “situational ethics” to support women who have abortions so which cultures and elements within them accept abortion without judgment and stigma?  These are some questions that we collectively seek to answer.

GS: What are interlinkages between Stigma and Sexuality, how do we ascertain the Role of sexuality and how we address this whole spectrum?

LH: One of the main reasons why abortion is stigmatized is because pregnancies occur in female bodies and terminating pregnancies violates socially constructed ideas of female sexuality and motherhood. Abortion stigma is used to control women, and it’s a way to punish women who deviate from social norms for what a woman should be. Stigma is perpetuated through a social process that involves labeling, stereotyping, separating and discriminating against women who have abortions and anyone associated with pregnancy termination.  Abortion stigma is systemic and plays out across multiple levels including: discourse and language, laws and policies, structures and institutions, communities and individuals.   Addressing stigma therefore will take understanding and interventions at multiple levels.

GS: What is the Feminist perspective on stigma?

LH: There isn’t one feminist perspective on stigma but I can say as someone who identifies as a feminist that there is no doubt in my mind that the feminist struggle to dismantle sexism and male power over women, will not be achieved until all women have control and power over their sexual and reproductive lives.  A truly feminist world is one where abortion isn’t criminalized, it is considered an integral part of women’s health, and a common and normal practice over which women have power and control.

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About Garima Shrivastava

Proud Feminist, researcher and activist and holds an MPhil in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her work, she has combined her theoretical understanding on gender issues with activism in the field of women rights. Garima has vast experience of working with youth groups and youth led campaigns and retains in-depth understanding of women’s health and reproductive rights, socio-political, economic and ecological issues affecting the sub-region.
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