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.
“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