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Dismantling Sexual Health Stigma in India

Natasha Chaudhary* is a trainer, coach and strategy consultant working to strengthen people-powered work. She is a Director at Haiyya, an Indian youth led feminist non-profit organization specializing in grassroots campaigning and consulting.

NEW DELHI, Feb 15 2019 (IPS) - Results from a survey with young and unmarried women suggest that as low as 1% of women have received information on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) from their mothers, doctors or government campaigns.

And 53% of these women feel unsure if the sexual health problems they faced were severe enough to visit a gynaecologist. Within the Indian context and patriarchal system, any conversation around young women’s sexuality is limited and stigmatised.

Natasha Chaudhary

This massively impacts the way unmarried women view their sexual health. About 13 women in India die every day due to unsafe abortions.

Shame and stigma particularly impact unmarried women who end up delaying abortions and often resort to backdoor clinics putting their lives at risk. As low as 20% of the unmarried women my organization (Haiyya) surveyed, knew about the abortion law in India, and 95% had never visited a gynaecologist to take consultation on sex, pleasure or contraception.

As a demographic, unmarried women are completely invisible in the domain of SRHR in India. Due to societal biases and shame, they de-prioritize their sexual health needs and refrain from accessing services.

When they try to consult doctors, they are often denied services, misinformed or coerced into decisions. It is this stigma and narrative we are challenging through our initiative at Haiyya called Health Over Stigma.

It all started 2 years ago, when one of our colleagues had to undergo an abortion. It was a traumatic and harrowing experience she went through at the clinic, where her dignity was shamed and destroyed.

Following that event, we found ourselves sharing personal stories with each other that we had never shared before. One of us had been denied getting a pap smear test because the doctor felt she would only need it once married.

Someone else had elongated treatment of a vaginal infection because she was too scared to visit a gynaecologist. Someone else had been shamed by the doctor, who dared to ask if her parents knew she was sexually active.

We all had approached our sexual health from a place of fear. None of us felt we could hold service providers accountable. We felt as if we were alone and had no bargaining power as a community.

We began talking to more women and found that despite different experiences, we were bound by our stories of isolation and helplessness. This issue has persisted because power lies with age old institutions where women are disengaged from decision making processes that affect their very own lives.

We needed to flip this by organizing unmarried women as a collective and moving the onus and accountability on medical institutions.

After two years of work, we are challenging the status quo. As a recipient of the Goalkeepers Youth Accelerator Award, this year I will be able to lead Haiyya in the implementation of a campaign were women will mobilize and demand to be treated with dignity and their agency upheld and asking doctors to fulfil their duty as non-judgmental service providers.

Through storytelling and community building, we are aiming to achieve three key objectives in 2019:

Catalyzing public commitments from institutions such as hospitals, ministries and other relevant health actors to update their code of conduct. Creating an online platform that empowers women by providing them with resources on their rights, how to access services, and testimonials from individual experiences.

Building a community of women in India who drive an online conversation in key states on devising informed strategies that improve access to health services and combat stigma

Within the sexual reproductive health and rights spaces, unmarried women continue to be a marginalised group. As a young unmarried woman working with other such women, I want to change that narrative.

We will achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.6 (ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights) by making possible that all women, from diverse backgrounds, ages and choices, have the right and necessary information.

*Natasha Chaudhary holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from University of Sydney and was an undergraduate at Delhi University. She says she deeply cares about gender, health and caste issues with a focus intersectional leadership and designing-interventions that enable changemakers as decision- makers shifting away from service delivery models.

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