What Led To My Fight For Sexual Health Rights Of Unmarried Indian Women
By Nidhi Srivastava:
I sit in the foyer of a co-working space – which is occupied mostly by male workers, this Sunday – and stare at the diagram of a vulva. “That’s the clitoris,” I point with conviction. “No! The clitoris is at the top, you idiot!” my neighbour, a 20-year-old Delhi University (DU) student, whispers at me.
There are 20 young unmarried women like myself, here. They are all early, but fresh-faced, for a common cause. We call ourselves ‘SRHR defenders’ – defenders of sexual and reproductive health and rights of unmarried women in our country. We’ve been working together from this year on ways and means to ensure a safe and stigma-free access to gynaecological services.
I was introduced to this campaign by Mrinalini, a bright, curly-haired girl, whom I met at a Harry Potter fan-club meeting. Maybe it was just the mood of the evening – but Mrinalini, who worked for Haiyya (the sponsoring NGO) reminded of a young Hermione waving SPEW leaflets at her Hogwarts mates.
To me, the campaign sounded like feminism in action – involving groundwork, campaigning, drafting guidelines, canvassing and petitioning. The #HealthOverStigma campaign was my opportunity to prove to the world that I was a feminist and that I was actually doing something about it.
At the time I joined the #HealthOverStigma campaign, I had been to a gynaecologist only once in the 28 years of my life. That was when I believed myself to be dying of hemorrhagic shock. I had struggled with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) for years, but had never got myself treated. The haemorrhage turned out to be due to dengue, but my ‘first time’ with a gynaecologist proved to be fairly simple and satisfactory.
Unfortunately, the experience is not the same for many unmarried women. When we spoke to over a 100 women, startling stories of ostracisation by families, hiding of medical records and horrifying experiences with gynaecologists came to light.
“I went to a doctor to get an infection treated. But once she knew that I was not married and sexually active, she found it immoral to treat me. She asked me to find another doctor,” shared one woman. You can read more such stories here.
Our goal was clear. As fellow defender Swati Gupta puts it, “If you’re an unmarried woman who wants to access sexual healthcare, then you can’t do so because our society decides and disqualifies that need for you. As a defender, I want to change that and make access to sexual healthcare smooth and stigma free.”
So, this is how I ended up spending my Sunday mornings and several evenings (of the week) with this bunch of enterprising women. Training for the defenders entailed educating ourselves in female biology (hence the diagram of the vulva), and getting ourselves examined by a gynaecologist. Our job included creating and conducting surveys, planning, strategising, canvassing on the streets and asking odd questions like, “When was the last time you visited a gynaecologist?”
At times, we felt like lechers. “Do you think she is married?” – we’d whisper to each other, while stalking women at locations ranging from flashy upscale markets like the Greater Kailash market to the hallowed corridors of DU. We tried to reach out to young, unmarried women who faced the greatest risk. Why unmarried women only? In fact, we had intense and even heated debates on who we should include in our demographic (or not), whether our campaign is inclusive enough and who the stakeholders are.
Fellow defender Esha Bansal, 19, says – “It’s baffling to see how ignorant even educated women are of their own bodies, because nobody felt the need to discuss these things in the open. I enjoyed the informative session with the gynaecologists the most, because I got to know so much I wasn’t even aware of, before.”
At the campaign, we made sure that we were learning at every step of the journey. At the end of every meet and during the late-night conference call, we’d ask each other this question – “How are you feeling?”
Frankly, I feel embarrassed. I am 28 years old and the only time I’d been to a gynaecologist was when I thought I was dying. Every time a friend of mine or I have questions related to sex or reproductive organs, we consult each other or the internet – rather than a professional, for fear of shame.
I am embarrassed. I am angry. I am angry at my recently-engaged friend who is asking me what contraceptives she should use. I’m angry that at home, I only dare to call this a ‘health campaign’, and not a ‘sexual and reproductive health campaign’.
I am 28 years old. Many of you reading this are far younger. Do you want to be 28 and still be shy and embarrassed? Confused and misinformed? Our SRHR campaign has created a brilliant opportunity for us to take back our own agency and to take control of our choices to ask for help – to demand help and to demand safe, non-judgemental and easy access to sexual health services.
You can join the fight for our rights. We are petitioning The Federation of Obstetric & Gynaecological Societies of India to make our ’10 commandments’ mandatory in all hospitals across the New Capital Region (NCR). Sign our petition here and get your friends to do the same. Any person of any age, gender or marital status can sign. Help us reach 500 signatures!