Fire in the Belly IV: Ayesha Chatterjee

Ayesha Chatterjee works at the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, publisher of the legendary Our Bodies Ourselves. She is a board member of the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund, and has also consulted with Care International on a pilot project to address violence against women in Tajikistan , a country in Central Asia that suffered a devastating civil war in the 1990s.
1. What kind of work do you do regarding reproductive justice?
At the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, I assist women around the world to develop health information that addresses the needs of women and girls in their countries, within the cultural, social, political, and religious contexts that shape their lives. As a board member at the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund (a member of the National Network of Abortion Funds), I work with an amazing team to increase access to safe abortion.
Before moving to Boston in 2005, I worked as a sexuality counselor in India – on a helpline and in the community – closely examining the broad spectrum of issues related to reproductive health, rights and justice.

2. Why were you drawn to this work?

Foremost among many reasons: I grew up in India, a historically patriarchal society that silences its women and continues to marginalize a disproportionate number of us–economically, socially, intellectually, and politically, both within our homes and in the community.
My journey began with a clinical internship in graduate school, in a psychiatric ward at a government hospital in Delhi . I was working with very low income women of various religious backgrounds, many of whom had not been educated and were not allowed by husbands, extended families, and communities to work outside of their homes. Many of the women shared stories that were similar to stories and experiences of other women I have met and known, both distant and close. These common threads reinforced for me how all of us–regardless of resources we may or may not have access to–lived in a society that does not look out for the health, rights and happiness of its women. That was eight years ago and there has been no looking back.
3. What’s the most frustrating part of your job? The most thrilling?
Most frustrating – the inevitable struggle between “vision” and “resources,” which often forces all of us to make painful compromises. Despite this, each tiny step towards building women’s agency, be it a rudimentary poster that brings critical information on HIV to rural Nigeria or financial assistance to a woman in Massachusetts or Maine who wants an abortion, is a thrilling reminder of the role I can – and do – play in challenging and re-shaping structural inequalities.
4. There are plenty of people who think that post-Roe women take their rights for granted. What would you like to say to these folks?
If indeed some women do take the right to abortion “for granted,” it is important that we ask them why, listen to their answers, and work to understand the experiences that inform either their activism or their decision to step aside.
Being a “post-Roe” woman myself, who grew up in a country where abortion is legal up to 5 months, I know that the tone of pre-Roe and post-Roe women’s social and political debate might differ at times. However, I also see the commonalities–from the financial realities that influence our “choices,” to the physical barriers that restrict us. And I know that the solutions must draw from all of our experiences – yours and mine and those of the many women who sacrificed so much to bring us to where we are today. It is only through these conversations, however difficult, that we can discover a common ground, find new allies, and build a movement that is truly cross-generational in voice, color, and spirit.
5. What’s one thing that a reader can do right now to help make your job easier?
Get involved.
The right to control one’s fertility has important consequences on our physical, emotional, financial and social stability. As this fundamental right continues to come under fire around the world, (did you know the Pope was recently quoted saying that condom use has aggravated the HIV/AIDS problem in Africa!) it is impossible to overemphasize the need for individual and collective action at this time–the need for all of us to speak up for each other, in this country and around the world.
You can start right now – arm yourself with reliable information, add your voice to the dialogue, donate your time and skills (and perhaps some cash) to a neighborhood organization trying to stay afloat and deliver quality health services in your community (there are many), or write your state representatives to let them know you care about reproductive justice and so should they.
And for the woman out there who takes her right to abortion “for granted,” I want to listen …

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