Guest Writers

Colonialism & the Sexual and Reproductive Health of Black Women and Women of Colour

Colonialism & the Sexual and Reproductive Health of Black Women and Women of Colour

Almaz Ohene | October 14, 2020 | 5 min. read

In early June, when Black Lives Matter activists protested police brutality and killings worldwide, the structural inequalities and oppression faced by Black people globally were forced into the spotlight.

Meanwhile, within the mainstream pornosphere we come across many harmful sexual stereotypes regarding different ethnic groups – for example the hyper-sexualisation of Black people and the desexualisation of South-East Asian men – which have been perpetuated for centuries by patriarchal and imperialist modes of knowledge production. Free aggregator porn sites also use the category ‘interracial’ which allows consumers to pursue the various combinations of racialised characters and racist scenarios.

“Within the mainstream pornosphere we come across many harmful sexual stereotypes regarding different ethnic groups”

But by looking beyond pornography and spotlighting sexual and reproductive health we can see how the colonial history of contraception still negatively affects Black women today. Let’s start with the history of the speculum, a tool that doctors use to open the walls of the vagina and examine the vagina and cervix.

The device that is still used globally by gynaecologists (STI) for such vaginal exams, was invented by a white, American man called J Marion Sims (1813-1883). He is known as the ‘father of modern gynaecology’ as he developed many of the obstetric and gynaecological procedures still used in Western medicine today. However, the new techniques were developed through forced experimentation – without anaesthetic, as common belief at the time was that Black people did not feel as much pain as white people – on enslaved Black American women who could not consent (because of their enslaved status). The curved speculum is still named after him.

This violent history is often sanitised or goes completely unacknowledged. For example, in the case of new US gynaecological startup Yona Care, which is redesigning the speculum with a “patient-centred perspective” but hasn’t engaged with any elements of the object’s challenging past.

“New techniques were developed through forced experimentation”

A Latin-American organisation called ‘Gynepunk‘, founded by the Peruvian-Bolivian Klau Kinky, educates people in the Spanish-speaking world about the colonial history of sexual and reproductive health violent history of modern gynaecology and obstetrics. Kinky is the protagonist of a documentary ‘Autodefense Gynecology‘ on the topic, by German documentary maker Julia Ostertag, which was screened at the Porn Film Festival Berlin in October 2019.

Another organisation bringing current and historical reproductive rights atrocities to the foreground is not-for-profit community interest group Decolonising Contraception.

Founded in 2018 by Dr Annabel Sowemimo, Decolonising Contraception aims to promote discussion on how culture and history impacts on sexual and reproductive health, particularly among previously colonised populations. Much of the collective’s work – of which I’m part of – involved unpacking how and why colonial history makes some communities more wary of engaging with medical care, through the programming of panel discussions, workshops, podcast appearances, lectures and the writing of academic papers and press features

A recent article by Dr Sowemimo explore why race is still a factor in antenatal care. She writes for Raconteur:

“A study published last year in Obstetrics & Gynecology revealed that non-white patients in the United States are less likely to receive pain relief despite experiencing more pain during delivery. In the first 24 hours after birth, white women were asked about their pain levels an average of 10.2 times, in comparison with 8.4 to 9.5 assessments for all other mothers.”

Forced sterilisation and birth control programmes along with restrictions of abortion rights have also disproportionately affected Black women and Women of Colour.

“Non-white patients in the United States are less likely to receive pain relief”

Margaret Sanger (1879– 1966) was the White American woman who opened a birth control clinic – she also populised the term ‘birth control’ – and founded what would go on to become Planned Parenthood in the US. This seems like a great step for women’s liberation, right? However, Sanger was a self-professed eugenicist – the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. It aims to reduce human suffering by ‘breeding out’ disease, disabilities and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population.

Sanger’s eugenics policies included an exclusionary immigration policy, free access to birth control methods, and full family planning autonomy for the able-minded, as well as compulsory segregation or sterilisation for what she termed “profoundly retarded”. Sanger wrote, “we [do not] believe that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, as many as one in four Native American women were sterilised without their knowledge or consent, as part of misguided efforts at public healthcare informed by the racist assumption that Native American women were not mentally capable of managing their own reproduction. Between the 1930s and 1970s, around a third of all Puerto Rican women were sterilised in an attempt to reduce poverty and unemployment, which the local government attributed to overpopulation.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, as many as one in four Native American women were sterilised without their knowledge or consent”

Today, many Black women around the world suffer from not being able to access abortion due to President Donald Trump’s expansion of the ‘global gag rule’ in 2017. The ‘global gag rule’ prohibits foreign nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) who receive US global health assistance from providing legal abortion.

Trump’s new legislation means that it now applies to recipients of any US global health funding. Everything from HIV and AIDS programming and health system strengthening to programs that support water, sanitation, and hygiene are now negatively impacted. But the 2019 book, The Global Gag Rule and Women’s Reproductive Health: Rhetoric Versus Reality, found that is has counter-productive and actually results in more, rather, than fewer abortions.

Around the world, Black and other communities of colour are disproportionately failed by both educational and healthcare systems. Recognising complicity and working to unlearn racist ideologies should fall under everyone’s remit. Remember, systemic white supremacy will not be dismantled unless accompanied by direct action.

Almaz Ohene is an award-winning multi-disciplinary writer and creative working across sexuality education, journalism and branding. Founder of ‘Kayleigh Daniels Dated’, a web platform combining sexy stories with informative sexual health features, sh... Read More
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