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It Takes 2 To Have Sex, But Why Is Practising Safe Sex Only A Woman’s Responsibility?

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By Amrita De

It is welcome news that there is finally research being done about contraceptives for men; it is unfortunate that these male contraceptives have proved to be as harmful to men as have female contraceptives to women.

It is more unfortunate that women have been complaining about side effects of contraceptive pills for decades, but have never been taken seriously, and this study with men finally seems to have highlighted the problem; some articles are now calling for men to share the burden of side-effects. While men, of course, must share equal responsibility, it is necessary to delve deeper into the politics of not taking women’s complaints seriously. Because at its roots, it is about the institutions of a patriarchal state, medical system, and family not taking women’s right to sexuality, their agency, and their dignity seriously.

When a movie like “Pink” explains a women’s right to sexual consent with the line ‘no means no’, it is accepted by popular culture. However, when “Masaan”, “Parched”, “Fire” and others before them sought to highlight women’s sexuality, or the idea of ‘yes means yes’, it was not.

The former, while acknowledging women’s agency to make choices, can still be made to fit into patriarchal notions of the ‘good woman,’ who says no to sexual advances, is perhaps sexually active only in the ‘right’ kind of relationship, or maybe isn’t sexually active at all. The latter, on the other hand, delves deeper into the notion of women’s rights, and women’s agency.

If there is such little acceptance of women’s sexual rights, how much space is available for women to express problems they face due to lack of safe contraceptive methods or side effects of the available contraceptives? If there is such little sensitivity to women’s agency in sexuality, would state policies and large-scale scientific research take her needs into consideration? History shows that women’s access to safe contraception has been violent – from contraception legally being a crime in the U.S. till as late as the 1970s, to severe social ostracisation faced by contraception activists in India in the 1920s.

Women’s contraceptive needs continue not to be seen as a right to their bodies and their sexuality, but from the perspective of family planning.

Family planning as a state policy is to control populations, and these measures have even more violent histories as being sexist, classist and racist which target the poor and the populations. Rights of women in these populations are doubly abused – on the one hand, there is no acceptance of their sexual agency, and on the other, they are targets for invasive and unsafe state contraceptive measures.

We must realise that such treatment of women’s bodies is a severe abuse of their right to a dignified life. The women’s movement around the world, including India, have been fighting against forced contraceptive methods performed on women’s bodies, but there still has not been much change.

In 2014, 11 women in a state sterilisation camp in Bilaspur, Chhatisgarh died due to botched procedures, and many more battled critical conditions for days later. The Maharashtra government has a scheme that offers compensation in case of death during sterilisations. Despite this, all state family planning measures in India promote invasive methods like the insertion of Copper T and sterilisations, and most of these are targeted at women.

According to NFHS-3 data, among all married women in India, 38% have used sterilisation, 11% use pills, 6% use IUDs, 14% use condoms, and almost 15% and 8% continue to use traditional methods like rhythm and withdrawal respectively. Women have been widely complaining about heavy bleeding, severe cramping, infection, anaemia, miscarriage, cancer, embolisms, and stroke, because of Copper T insertion but these complaints seem to have been ignored by scientific research. Such refusal to acknowledge women’s expressions is done by male partners, community resources, state service providers, laws, policies, and even medical & scientific communities, and this is an abuse of women’s constitutional rights to expression and dignity.

The question arises that if men begin to share these negative side effects, will women’s (and men’s) sexual rights be fulfilled? Will they start experiencing safe sex?

This was one of the questions that came up during a discussion organised by Anubhuti with our youth group ‘Raahi’. Anubhuti is an organisation in Mumbai formed by young women to work with the youth on building leadership skills that they can use to lead social change on various issues.

One of the issues that Anubhuti and Raahi are collaborating on is the right to sexuality and right to safe sex specifically through their campaign ‘Sharir Sanvaad Abhiyan’.

Members of Anubhuti and Raahi are using research, film screenings, focus group discussions, public meetings, workshops, corner meetings and other ways to promote open conversations about our bodies as the beginning point to start talking about equal responsibility for equal sexual and reproductive rights.

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During a workshop with women in a village in Thane district that Anubhuti is active in, we found that almost 25 women out of a group of 30 had experienced some complications due to using sterilisations or Copper T as advised by state healthcare providers and doctors.

About 10 of them had used unwanted abortions as a preventive measure. Safe sex is understood by these women, in the best case scenario, to be sex that hopefully does not lead to pregnancy. Lack of access to information – to affordable contraceptive methods, to sensitive counselling from primary healthcare providers, and of any open environment in which women can express their thoughts about contraception make their effort to experience sex that is ‘safe’ from pregnancy, a herculean task.

Men, on the other hand, have more mobility and access, seem to take little responsibility in ensuring that their partners experience sex safely. Men are more likely to be exposed to misinformed and potentially violent notions of male sexual ‘prowess’ (not rights) through porn, friends, hacks and mainstream media. According to state reports, 20% of couples in India continue to have children they do not want because contraceptive services do not reach them.

In all of this, the humble condom is the most easy to use, easy to access, non-invasive and with absolutely no actual or feared negative side effects on the user. Additionally, the condom not only makes sex safe from potential unwanted pregnancies but from most sexually transmitted diseases, infections, etc.

The only difference is that the onus of condom’s usage falls on men. Despite this, all awareness measures are focused on women using invasive, potentially dangerous methods while completely ignoring men. It is important to connect these experiences to the question of women’s agency and their right to express sexuality.

Anubhuti’s ‘Sharir Sanvaad Abhiyan’ is at its base about gender equity, and like a young member of ‘Raahi’ said, “There cannot be gender equity without sexual equity”. Therefore, ‘Sharir Sanvaad Abhiyan’ is about equality in sexual relationships, one way being through equal responsibility for safe sex. Anubhuti has begun by sensitising men and women about using condoms. At the same time, stakeholders like health workers, ANMs, CHVs, ASHAs, etc. will be advocated with for counselling people about using condoms along with other contraceptive advice they give. Similar advocacy will later be done with higher officials in the government to ensure systemic measures that simplify people’s access to safe contraception and sexual advice.

Anubhuti is right now in the stage of carrying out research to collect relevant data from youth, women, men, primary health care providers, doctors, etc. about their understanding of safe sex, the experience of contraceptive use, etc.

Equal responsibility taken by both partners for contraception is being seen as an intrinsic part of overall equality in relationships, and we would love to hear from you about any experiences you have had regarding any of these issues.

Do write to us with your thoughts at anubhutiteam@gmail.com, and follow #sharirsanvaadabhiyan on our Facebook page – Anubhutigroup and Twitter handle @anubhutimumbai.

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Image source: Hindustan Times/Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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