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.
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 [email protected], and follow #sharirsanvaadabhiyan on our Facebook page – Anubhutigroup and Twitter handle @anubhutimumbai.