Posts by Ayesha

December 19, 2013

Cross-Border Surrogacy: How OBOS is Advancing Public Discourse and Action

Women's Rehabilitation Center facilitators in Kathmandu

Women’s Rehabilitation Center facilitators lead community discussions on cross-border surrogacy in Kathmandu / Photo courtesy of WOREC

by Ayesha Chatterjee & Sally Whelan

In an episode that aired on primetime television in 2007, America’s favorite talk show host portrayed cross-border surrogacy as a win for everyone.

Oprah Winfrey blazed her spotlight on an American couple that traveled to a fertility clinic in the Indian city of Anand to commission a baby. In front of an audience of millions, she extolled the benefits of the arrangement for the couple, who can finally have a baby, and for the woman who is paid to become their surrogate, who can finally send her child to school. Yes, many in the audience agreed, there seem to be benefits all around!

Cross-border surrogacy is a contract-based arrangement that uses assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization. It is a lucrative global industry — the heart of which beats in India — and part of a wider, multi-billion dollar market in assisted reproduction. Thousands of individuals, straight and gay, married and not, have hired surrogates to bear their children.

So who would rain on this parade? Why are there “concern trolls” raising difficult questions about a “solution” that seems a boon for everyone involved?

The answer demands a closer look at the supply side — at the lives, motivations, and vulnerabilities of the women who carry and deliver babies for others, most often to pull themselves and their families out of dire poverty. Their marginalized social and economic status creates a power imbalance that makes it impossible to negotiate dignified and fair “working” conditions and, in fact, allows recruiting agents and clinics to get away with exploitative practices.

Scratch the surface, and these arrangements are replete with health and human rights problems: gestational mothers, otherwise known as surrogates, unable to read the contractual obligations to which they consent; minimal compensation and unfair payment schedules; forced seclusion from family (including young children) and community, in dormitories with round-the-clock monitoring; high-risk medical procedures, including high doses of hormones for embryo transfer and mandated cesarean sections; and little or no postpartum follow up, even in cases of unexpected birth outcomes and health emergencies such as hemorrhage, which can occur days or weeks later with fatal results.

In the middle are the children born as a result of these arrangements. Without best practices and regulation, their rights as citizens in cross-border arrangements, their legal parentage and best interest in custody disputes, and their safety in the absence of adequate screening of commissioning parents, hang in limbo while the world catches up.

This is the untold story of cross-border surrogacy — one on which Oprah did not dwell, one that many of us – including many commissioning parents — know little about. In such a story, where the scales are tipped from the start, only one side wins. The other simply settles.

Here is another story. OBOS, with the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) and Sama Resource Group for Women and Health, is responding to ethical conundrums and human rights issues raised by the largely unregulated cross-border surrogacy market and its ability to adapt to lucrative regional niches.

Sama, based in India, uses action research to critically examine cross-border surrogacy practices, articulate the impact on the lives of women, and make policy recommendations. Sama and OBOS provide technical support to WOREC in Nepal as it builds awareness in its nationwide network of Women Human Rights Defenders, assesses the status of an emerging fertility sector — especially along the country’s border with India — and crafts a preemptive response.

Our goal is simple: develop evidence-based, objective and accessible information to ignite broader social dialogue and action on an issue that is layered, laden, and, most importantly, misrepresented by recruiting agents and fertility clinics.

This collaboration is a call for best practices and regulation of assisted reproduction, and a stepping stone to engaging with commissioning parents as allies who can hold the industry accountable. It embodies OBOS’s legacy of bringing important sexual and reproductive rights issues from the periphery to mainstream dialogue.

And, as policy lags behind technology and markets and the media continue to color public perception of a complex human rights dilemma, this collaboration positions us on the cutting edge to ensure cross-border surrogacy moves forward a an ethical option for growing our families and financial stability — making it a true win for everyone.


May 23, 2013

Adapting “Our Bodies, Ourselves” for Iranian and Vietnamese Women and Girls

Friends of the Vietnamese OBOS project

Committed friends of the Vietnamese OBOS project Susan Bailey (left) and Roslyn Feldberg and Nancy Hammett (right), join Project Director Khuat Thu Hong (center) and OBOS’s Judy Norsigian and Sally Whelan.

The Our Bodies Ourselves Global Network is a dynamic coalition of social change organizations, all of whom talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to the health and human rights of women and girls.

This year, OBOS welcomes two new partners into its growing network.

The Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, in collaboration with the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, is adapting sections of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” into Farsi. This is a critical effort to reach Iranian women and girls, especially those living in Iran and routinely subjected to oppression and censorship, both by government and other forces.

Fatemeh Keshavarz, director of the Institute, told OBOS that the Farsi resource, which will be available online, will lead the Institute’s effort to integrate gender into a broader social change framework.

“We have so far been an academic institution with a fairly small reach,” said Keshavarz. “I am trying to expand our reach to Persian speakers across the globe, particularly inside Iran, mostly through the internet. I am also adding gender to the range of lenses we have used for understanding and instigating social change. The current project is one of the very first steps in that direction.”

Further away, in Vietnam, OBOS is working with the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS) in Hanoi to provide nearly 3 million women and girls evidence-based, culturally appropriate information based on Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Toolkits with discussion guides, stories and proposed actions will cover such topics as relationships and sexuality, sexual health and reproductive choices, bodies and identities, and post-reproductive years. ISDS will use the resources in trainings across the country, and tap a large, close-knit collaborative network that spans the provinces to maximize print and digital access. One of ISDS’s allies, the Vietnamese Women Union, has 13 million members.

The timing and impact of our Vietnamese partnership are critical. The UNFPA reports that about half the country’s population is under 25, with high rates of unplanned pregnancies, abortions and HIV infection. Yet condom use is low, and young people are continually exposed to inaccurate and misleading information.

In a country where nearly 38 percent of the population subsists on less that $2 a day, millions of poor and rural Vietnamese women and girls are unable to pay for reliable information and services. Access is further limited by the lack of capacity and neglect exhibited by state agencies overseeing sexual health education. A strong response is needed — and the ISDS is well positioned and equipped to lead the way.

Established in 2002, the ISDS is renowned in Vietnam for the quality of its research and ability “to inform as well as influence,” as it applies academic knowledge to meet national challenges. At the community level, the ISDS is strongly rooted in the philosophy of “knowledge as power,” and has successfully adopted an approach that keeps women and girls front and center as it builds public awareness around gender, sexuality and sexual health.

With support in place from Oxfam Novib, the Dutch affiliate of Oxfam, ISDS and OBOS are responding to a growing health crisis in Vietnam. In November 2012, Khuat Thu Hong, ISDS co-director and director of the adaptation project, met with OBOS staff and a circle of committed friends in Boston to formalize our partnership and launch the project.

OBOS is honored to collaborate with ISDS and the Roshan Insitute to bring Our Bodies, Ourselves to Vietnamese and Iranian women and girls. These projects speak to the urgent need for evidence-based, culturally appropriate health resources – and underscore our commitment to ensuring the health and human rights of all women and girls.

Ayesha Chatterjee is the OBOS Global Initiative program manager.


May 22, 2013

Supporting Women – At Home and Around the World

First in an occasional series by OBOS staff about their work and their lives.

Ayesha and her daughter, Tara

Ayesha and her daughter, Tara

I was welcomed into the Our Bodies Ourselves family in January 2006, soon after I moved to Boston from India. As a die-hard reproductive justice advocate (and unabashed “Our Bodies, Ourselves” fan), I was euphoric to join the team.

The OBOS Global Initiative, which supports women’s organizations developing and using culturally specific materials based on “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” offered the perfect opportunity to weave together my commitment to women’s rights and cross-cultural movement building.

Eight years later, I have helped shepherd the development of resources based on “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in 12 additional languages (with more in development), and coalesced a global network of social change activists.

I have been privileged to meet, learn from, and grow to love this group of women, each on the frontline of human rights work in her country. I know that OBOS’s partnerships with these visionary and tenacious leaders represent a community of shared interests that is pivotal to protecting the lives of women and girls on the ground.

Beyond OBOS, I nurture my decade-long love affair with reproductive justice by supporting families with newborns. As a postpartum doula trained by DONA International, the oldest and largest doula association in the world, and young mum (and as a child who benefitted enormously from the loving arms of extended family), I am personally affected by and committed to changing the state of postpartum care in the United States — one mummy at a time!

My doula-ing started rather unexpectedly and informally in 2009, with the birth of my niece. Though I have always been acutely aware of the growing global crisis in maternal and postpartum care through my work overseas and at OBOS, being with my sister and her family during and after the birth was transformative — the proverbial eye-opener. I quickly became aware of the awesomeness of their task; a task that really does take a village.

At the time, my goal was simple: to love and provide everything my sister and her partner needed to stay nourished and focused on their baby and each other. From hot meals and daily grocery runs, to endless loads of laundry and late-night, sleepy-eyed banter to keep my sister awake (and laughing) through yet another round of pumping, I did my best and loved (nearly) every moment of it.

OBOS, with its four-decade journey and networks of women’s health activists, has connected me with women who, like me, are drawn to the sides of expectant and new mothers. With these relationships, I am now gaining stride in my doula-clogs.

I thank the families that have let me into their homes and lives; I am honored and humbled by their trust. As OBOS expands its global reach, I thank the women who have become our steadfast co-conspirators in a collective struggle. I am inspired by the fire in their bellies.

And to all of you: I thank you for cheering us on and hope you will remain our committed partners as we plough ahead, forging a global community where women live without fear, with dignity, wrought as a fundamental human right.

Ayesha Chatterjee is the OBOS Global Initiative program manager.


July 28, 2011

Meet the Newest Members of the Women’s Health Heroes Hall of Fame

Update Sept. 7Blog series by and about OBOS’s global partners launches today!

In 2009, Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS) launched its first-ever Women’s Health Heroes Awards to honor women and men who have made championing women’s health their life’s work. Since then, 40 individuals and groups have been inducted into OBOS’s Women’s Health Hall of Fame, selected from hundreds of nominations.

This year is a special year for OBOS; 2011 marks 40 years of activism in the United States and the evolution of OBOS into a vibrant international network of social change activists. Our network partners in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe bring health resources based on “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to their communities and fearlessly advance the health and human rights of women and girls in their countries. They often do so at grave personal risk in some of the most socially and politically charged regions of the world.

They are our heroes, and they are the newest inductees into OBOS’s Women’s Health Heroes Hall of Fame. We’ll post more about each group here on the blog later this summer. Until then, here’s a brief look at why we celebrate them:

  • Alternative Culture Publishing (Korea) for leading public discourse on sexuality and prioritizing the needs of young Koreans.
  • Anveshi (India) for reminding us that solutions to the health crisis in that country must be situated within a unique and complex fabric of family… caste … class … community… and state.
  • “For Family and Health” Pan-Armenian Association (Armenia) for bringing affordable – and free – reproductive care to women and girls across Armenia.
  • Cairo Women’s Health Book Collective (Egypt) for going where few have gone with the first Arabic edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” taking on issues taboo in conservative Egyptian society.
  • Chinese Women’s Health Network (China) for standing up to government regulation with an underground adaptation of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” after its first edition was censored.
  • Gender Alliance for Development Center (Albania) for reaching youth with information and skills they can use to make safe reproductive and sexual choices.
  • Groupe de Recherche sur les Femmes et les Lois au Senegal (GREFELS) for empowering women to understand and care for their natural bodies in Senegal, a country where beauty is often defined by largeness and fair skin.
  • Mavi Kalem (Turkey) for ingeniously using in-person and online platforms to engage and mentor young activists in the region.
  • National Women’s Studies and Information Centre (Moldova) for envisioning and helping lay the groundwork for a national struggle for human rights.
  • Network of East-West Women (Poland) for nurturing one of the largest and most respected networks of human rights activists in the region.
  • The “Nuestros Cuerpos, Nuestras Vidas” collaboration for articulating unique and common ground in the experiences of Latinas across the Caribbean, North, Central and South America.
  • Sanlaap (India) and Manavi (United States) for responding to violence in South Asian communities in both countries and creating a Bangla “Our Bodies, Ourselves” – a first for Bengali literature!
  • Shokado (Japan) for reclaiming language and sexuality for all Japanese women and girls by coining new terms for body parts previously written with Chinese characters that convey shame.
  • Tanzania Home Economics Association (Tanzania) for developing a Kiswahili resource based on “Our Bodies, Ourselves” that will reach the entire East Africa region.
  • Tibetan Nuns Project (India) for protecting, educating and empowering Tibetan nuns fleeing persecution and living in exile (and poverty) in India.
  • Women and Their Bodies (Israel) for pioneering a peace-building initiative between Palestinian and Israeli women that is publishing Arabic and Hebrew adaptations of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
  • Women for Empowerment, Development, and Gender Reform (Nigeria) for bringing health information based on “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to 1.5 million women, girls and men.
  • Women’s Health Education Network (Thailand) for noting there is no word for “sexuality” in Thai and having the courage to talk about it.
  • Women’s Health Project (South Africa) for boldly tackling the impact of apartheid on women and girls in its “Women’s Health Handbook.”
  • Women’s Health Promotion Center (Serbia) for giving voice and visibility to women and girls brutalized by ethnic conflict and resulting sexual violence.
  • Women’s Health Initiative (Bulgaria) for confronting stigma associated with childlessness in a pro-natalist society and demanding supportive infertility treatment for women who desire children.
  • Women’s Health in Saint Petersburg (Russia) for helping to establish the first family planning center in Russia and youth clinics that use the Russian adaptation of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as a key resource.
  • Women’s Rehabilitation Center (Nepal) for refusing to back down on its demand for reproductive rights in the recently democratized country’s new constitution.
  • Women Unlimited (India) for being one of few South Asian feminist publishers and for publishing an “Our Bodies, Ourselves” edition for women and girls across the region.

It is impossible to capture the diversity of our network partners, the richness of their vision and the magnitude of their impact in a short post. We invite you to meet some of these courageous women at the free symposium on Oct. 1, celebrating OBOS’s 40th anniversary and honoring our network partners. View more event details at ourbodiesourselves.org/40thanniversary.asp.

Ayesha Chatterjee is the assistant program manager of the Our Bodies Ourselves Global Initiative.