By Shreya Gupta
In this paper, Robson studies the feminist responses to HPV vaccine in India and the UK. The HPV virus, transmitted through sexual contact, can cause cancer of vagina, anus, penis, throat, neck, head and cervix. The vaccine is gendered in its use. It is advertised as a preventive for women cervical cancer only. This gendered use, as Robson mentions, emphasizes on women as protectors of sexual health. The governments and pharmaceutical companies promote this view – linking sexually transmitted viruses and the sexual behavior of women only.
Robson locates the HPV vaccine in the long history of struggle for women’s reproductive health and rights. In the paper, she historically contextualizes the respective feminist responses to HPV so as to assert the geographical and ideological variability of these responses. The UK response has been pro-vaccine, while Indian feminist groups have sought a ban on the HPV vaccine.
In the Indian context, Robson brings to light the issues of gender, class and caste in the study and use of the HPV vaccine. The research study of Gadrasil medicine was conducted on boarding school girls who were SC/ST/Muslim/OBCs in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat 2009-10. This led us to a discussion on the ethical procedures of vaccine testing, the social background of the girls put under this study and the harmful effects of this vaccine. The social backgrounds of the boarding school (tribal) girls show us how they become a testing ground for pharmaceutical companies as they cater to the middle classes – those who can afford the vaccine; hence the Indian feminist groups’ campaign against the vaccine.
The Indian feminist groups Sama and Saheli also seek a ban on this vaccine as its efficacy is not fully established. They question the necessity of this vaccine when India has such poor primary healthcare infrastructure. In Dec’09 press release ‘Why women’s group oppose HPV vaccines’, Sama and Saheli also bring to light the deaths of some girls which followed after the vaccine study. However, it is difficult to claim any connection between the deaths and the vaccine. With India’s huge population, pharmaceutical companies find this a fertile ground to experiment and sell their products.
In the UK, the vaccine is promoted as a cancer prevention strategy rather than HPV as a sexually transmitted virus. The target groups are the middle classes. The conservative government tends to take the line abstinence-as-prevention. Right wing groups even try to stop women outside abortion clinics.
In the UK, the HPV vaccine was introduced in 2007 as part of the National Health Service child vaccination programme for girls. The Cambridge University Students’ Union Women’s Society even ran a campaign to encourage wider implementation of the vaccine and promoting the use of Gardasil rather than Cervarix. (Gardasil targets more HPV strands than Cervarix).
Hence we see how the UK response has been largely pro-vaccine while the Indian feminist groups have sought to ban the same vaccine because of unethical testing procedures and its uncertain harmful effects. With such variety and variance in responses to the HPV vaccine, Robson ends her paper by asking how western feminism and global south feminisms may come together as feminist health activists to ensure a joint struggle for women’s reproductive rights.