Three out of four pregnant Asian teenage women in New Zealand abort their pregnancy compared to 59 per cent and 32 per cent of European and Maori teenage women, respectively.
In fact, according to a research paper titled 'Problem of Asian Women's Sexuality: Discourses in Public Health in Aotearoa, New Zealand' (2007), presented at the 4th APCRSH in Hyderabad, at least one Asian woman in the age group 14-25 years (usually a student), was referred by a Christchurch-based clinic every day for pregnancy termination.
This has led to questions about whether Asian young women living in New Zealand are sexually more reckless than their counterparts from other ethnic communities. If 75 per cent of Asian women under the age of 20 terminate their pregnancies, is it a rational decision or an indiscreet one? Would having the child be a more rational option? Or is it better to have compunctions about undergoing abortion?
These questions are 'suffused with cultural bias' and deliberately so, says Dr Rachel Simon-Kumar, Senior lecturer, Department of Societies and Cultures, University of Waikato, New Zealand. She says whether Asian women are seen as 'rational' or 'reckless' depends on whose cultural lens is being used and public perceptions of the Asian sexual health problem.
In 2001-2002, there was a spurt of public interest in New Zealand about the sexual health and sexual behaviors of the Asian community. This was fuelled in a large part by data that showed that induced terminations among Asian women increased from 9.8 per cent in 1997 to 13.16 per cent in 2001. The data also indicated that the number of Asians at an abortion clinic had increased from 12 per cent in 1995 to 55 per cent in 2002.
In the same year (2001), a report published by the District Health Board of the Auckland region found that reproductive and sexual health was among the top three reasons for hospitalization among Asians in the 25-64 age group in 1999- 2000. These findings were significant, considering this region has the highest concentration of Asians in New Zealand.
Simon-Kumar, who has studied the problem of Asian women's sexuality in New Zealand and how social and cultural values are implicated in defining sexual health, presented her research at the just-concluded 4th Asia Pacific Conference for Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (4APCRSH) in Hyderabad, India held from October 29 to 31, 2007.
She contends that the reproductive and sexual health of Asian communities in New Zealand has emerged as a 'problem' in the last five years. Much of it has emerged from the general perception of Asians living in the country. Asians are seen as bringing with them abusive drinking, careless driving, drugs, gambling and criminal activity. This negative image is reinforced when even the country's Ministry of Women's Affairs (MWA) website (mwa.govt.nz) states that 'Asian women are more likely to abort a pregnancy'.
Incidentally, Asians are now the third-largest ethnic group in New Zealand, followed by the European and Maori communities. Within the Asian population, the Chinese are the largest ethnic group, followed by Indians and Koreans (Statistics New Zealand, 2004).
But could the perception about the sexuality of Asian women arise from a lack of cultural sensitivity in public health services? "While there is no doubt that far more Asian women chose to terminate pregnancies, I find the insinuation that only these girls are sexual highly problematic. In 2003-04, I was involved in a research project that aimed to understand Asian sexual health statistics At the time, I, too, had taken the 'problem' for granted, and was keen to explore the reasons for the Asian sexual problem. By talking to Asian women students, I hoped to glean a sense of their sexual values and practices," recalls Simon- Kumar. (The research project, Cultures of Sexuality, was conducted by Simon- Kumar and submitted to the University of Auckland in 2006.)
During the course of her study, she found that for some of them, being in New Zealand was an opportunity to explore and make individual discoveries about themselves whilst for others the response was to adhere to the prevailing values of their ethnic communities. "There was no one Asian value to sexuality or abortion. It ranged from liberal to conservative and was determined by the women's particular upbringing and present contexts. I found that social institutions - family, religion, their communities and the state - played an influential part in their decisions around sexuality. The research findings clearly showed the complex ways in which New Zealand and Asian home countries offered varying cultural contexts in definitions of what is appropriate or not," clarifies Simon-Kumar.
Explaining why Asian women were over-represented in abortion statistics, Simon-Kumar says that Asian women have different sets of values about contraception and abortion. They understand and 'use' abortion as a method of contraception. Secondly, language barriers constrain Asian women from accessing health services, and health services may not be as culturally sensitive as they could be in dealing with ethnic populations. For instance, sometimes, the interpreters were of the wrong gender.
But, instead of understanding the problems, medical practitioners and the media continue to stress that Asian women live permissive lives, don't understand contraception; and that Asian students exposed to New Zealand-style school education on sex "miss the point" completely because of cultural differences. According to a report, cited in Simon-Kumar's current paper, by Terri Hu McFriedes, who researched Asian high school students, in classrooms where sex education is taught, there is lots of fun and laughter. But for Kiwis the "message is still delivered. Asians don't get the real message".
Another prominent reasoning for girls resorting to abortion stems from the cultural shame associated with admitting pre-marital sex. Medical professionals in New Zealand found that young women did not talk about contraception or pregnancy either with their boyfriends or best friends. Cultural and language barriers further meant that they could not approach anyone about questions that they had about contraception.
All these explanations have perpetuated a certain image of Asian women and their sexual values. "What is interesting is that the overall - and lasting - impression of Asian women is that of 'need': Asian women in need of education, needing to move away from traditional ways of thinking, in need of intervention or, simply, in need of sorting out in their lives. It conveys the contradictions in the way Asian sexuality is presented as problematic in public health and media discourses. There are rationales for sexual behavior among Asian groups that do not neatly fit into the popularly constructed imagery of how and why Asian women behave," contends Simon-Kumar.
Unless the need to be culturally appropriate and sensitive while dealing with ethnic minorities in New Zealand is recognized urgently, Asian women will continue to seen as `sexually more reckless'.