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The Stigma Unmarried Women Face While Trying To Access Sexual Health

Since our childhood, we, as women, are taught that our bodies do not belong to us. We are prepared to dress for others, take care of our bodies for others, and look good for others. This further extends into sexual health for unmarried women because of the high social stigma attached to female sexuality and pre-marital sex. These barriers inhibit women from accessing services, thus, putting themselves at risk. Fearing judgement from gynaecologists and other service providers, single women avoid going to them and find alternate sources of information that are often unsafe.

This happened a year back. My friend was seeing this guy and it got physical quite soon. They would have sex every weekend at the guy’s place because he lived alone. One day she got pregnant and was super nervous. She called me up and we decided to go to a very reputed gynaecologist in Gurgaon, far from the place where she lived so as to avoid bumping into anyone she knew. When we told the doctor that she wanted to get an abortion, he was totally taken aback. He asked us our age proof so we gave him our IDs. He then refused to treat her even though she was an adult (19 in fact) by made up a stupid excuse saying that he already has a lot of appointments and gave us another doctor’s number. It wasn’t true because we asked his assistant before hand and she had said that he was free.”

The stigma with regards to abortions for unmarried women is so high that there are advances being made to amend the vague Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act specifically to protect unmarried women.

messages from women to the campaign #healthoverstigma to end the stigma of unmarried women accessing sexual health.I visited a gynaecologist when my period was late even though I’d been careful and used protection. I used a pregnancy test which was negative but I was scared and paranoid and I just wanted to double check. I scheduled an appointment randomly at a clinic nearby as I didn’t have any recommendations from anyone. Unfortunately, for me it was an elderly doctor who was extremely rude, condescending and intrusive. She started asking me personal questions such as whether I was married, if not, how long have I been with my boyfriend, how many times we’ve had unprotected sex (he’s the only one I’ve slept with in my whole life and the same is the case for him), whether my parents know. I was visibly squirming as I asked her why she was asking me all this. She ignored me, and went on to tell me that if I have sex then I should be prepared to conceive and get STDs (even though I’m monogamous as is he) and that not having sex is the only solution to avoid doubt. She started asking me when I plan to marry him and whether my parents should be told about this. When I asked her to do her job and tell me what the reason for my delayed period could be, other than possible pregnancy, she said she could not help me further. I went for a second opinion to another doctor at a different hospital who was much younger, but faced the same. She was more interested in the fact that I’m not married and sexually active than in prescribing me the medication necessary for inducing my period, since it was established that I wasn’t pregnant.”

These are the stories that women from all over India have sent us. The commonalities between them are the fear, sense of isolation and the stigma unmarried women face. To tackle this, and create a strong narrative around it, Haiyya has launched Health Over Stigma, a campaign to bring together thousands of young, unmarried women from diverse backgrounds who have been shamed at one point or another and want to drive the change. We, and our team of SRHR Defenders (Campaign leaders) have been holding our Week of Action in New Delhi to create urgency and bring visibility around the issue. Our actions have included a picnic in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens, “The Vagina Dialogues” that aim at starting a dialogue on Sexual Health and a crowd sourced list of experiences (you can read the other stories there).

In order for unmarried women to feel empowered and to normalize the access to sexual health, we are creating safe and non-judgemental spaces. This weekend (Saturday 25th February & Sunday 26th February) at New Rajendra Place two gynaecologists – Dr. Mala Srivastava of Gangaram Hospital and Dr. Ankita Srivastava provided free consultation to unmarried women and a range of other services such as cervical cancer screenings and HPV vaccines. The session was open to all unmarried women who wanted to gain more information, ask questions to an unbiased doctor or join our campaign. If you are interested in gaining more information please contact Healthoverstigma@gmail.com

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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