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Talking To Married Women About Sex Showed Me How Little Wives Think About Consent

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PLD logoEditor’s Note: This post is part of a video series by Partners for Law in Development - India and Co:Motion. Based on stories re-constructed from real cases, this series, in collaboration with Youth Ki Awaaz, seeks to create crucial conversations around sexuality, consent and rejection. If you have experiences or a story to share, publish it here.

Ironically, in a sanctimonious institution, undesired marital sex is a grim reality that its women have to live with each day, without any reprieve.

It wouldn’t be preposterous to say that largely, marriages in India traditionally strip women of their independence and put them in male custodianship for life. With the quagmire that is marital rape in India, it was troubling me that perhaps we had gotten off on the wrong foot, seeing how the concept of consent within marriage is a notion that so many of us don’t understand.

Coming from an environment where I wanted to ask uncomfortable questions but was expected to “just know things with age”, it was difficult to broach the topic.

I met him only after marriage. I was nervous but that couldn’t be an excuse. In our times, we never knew we couldn’t say no. You can’t discuss bedroom matters in a courtroom.” However unsurprising my mother’s reluctant admission was, it did start a train of thought that refused to stop without talking to other people in order to make sense of what women in my life thought about consent and marriage.

Growing up, sex education came from really questionable sources that inhibited me from actually being able to interpret my own body. It’s the case with most women. People are discouraged from talking, from laying ground rules and boundaries in an intimate relationship with a partner because of the power imbalance. I was married at 15. Had never been touched before. But that is for the husband. He leads, I follow. If I say no, he’ll look for it somewhere else,” my incredulous maid laughed it off as the very thought of denying the husband his carnal pleasures is outrageous to her.

Because, as a culture, we are opposed to discussing sex as a healthy topic. I believe we have duped our women and men into believing that denying sex in marriage is exiting the role of a traditional wife whose duty is to give pleasure, but who isn’t entitled to any herself.

Since both men and women have never understood their own bodies nor their partners, they relate bodily reactions to consent which leaves room for misunderstandings. Men ‘assume’ that active and enthusiastic consent is a given, and discomfort is equated with ‘traditional shyness’.

My teacher, who has been married for over a decade and whom I have admired for her assertiveness told me, In marriages, consent is underlying. Sometimes I’m confused whether it is just anticipation or I’m actually uncomfortable. After being married, you stop asking for consent every time or it ceases to matter. That’s why it is expected of you to overlook violations.”

While men have no qualms in expressing sexual desires, women are stuck in limbo where they aren’t able to determine whether their consent is active and informed, or a result of pre-existing notions. It renders them unable to actually recognise themselves as victims, even when they should.

Upon asking whether she would refuse sex more if it came without repercussions, my friend, who is newly married, exclaimed quite wistfully, I’d like if there’s an option that I can refuse without using periods as an excuse every time.”

It’s interesting to note that we do still understand rape outside marriages. Even in violent and turbulent marriages, it’s seen as an extension of domestic violence. The problem occurs when these incidents happen in isolation.

“If he forces himself on me, despite my refusal, however passive, I’d like to talk to him first. I understand that sometimes it is difficult to stop. And even if I complain, who’s going to believe me? The legal battle will suck everything out of me. I’d rather go for divorce if it keeps happening.” I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t upsetting to know that my own best friend thought so.

A lot of women I talked to were inclined to give the benefit of doubt to their husband and chalk it up to a misunderstanding. It frustrated me to no end that they’d be forced to let go because of social pressure and legal loopholes. That no one would believe that the same person they have been having loving sex with is capable of violating their bodies.

The experience forced me to think that whether married or single, sexually active or not, women need to explore and develop their consensual boundaries. We need to do away with the concept that men must know everything and the imbalance it invariably creates in the relationship.

How will you raise your voice against it, when you aren’t clear if it is, in fact, rape or not? Until then, even if a law is made, it would be of no use.

Featured image for representative purposes only.
Featured image source: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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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.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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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