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This Is The Land Of Kamasutra, Where Many Are Afraid To Even Say The Word ‘Sex’

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PFIEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #YoungSambandh, a campaign by Population Foundation of India and Youth Ki Awaaz to find solutions to improving access and awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights among young people. Have a story to share? Share it with your thoughts and suggestions here.

By Milana Prakash:

Kajal goes to the chemist and asks for a pregnancy test. The shopkeeper looks at her forehead, then her neck, and then furtively tries to grab a glance at her ring finger for any sign of being ‘married’. Kajal senses it and pulls her hand back. Wordlessly, the man hands her a kit and watches her leave with a vindictive gaze.

Sex is sacrosanct, still only a privilege of the married.

We’re a strange country, the blessed land of Kamasutra, where ironically, babies are gifts of gods, quite literally (for instance, Kunti from Mahabharata) and it is quite an irony that in the world’s second most populous country, sex is a taboo. Particularly any sexual act that falls out of the ambit of consummation between a married heterosexual couple.

There are multiple axes to this discourse: gender, geography, age, and upbringing. There is a fifth locus too when we talk about the LGBTQ community in India.

While Section 377 has decriminalized homosexuality, it is nowhere close to being obliterated from being anything less than an aberration in the minds of most citizens. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, family planning, abortions, and the use of contraceptives are all in their own ways still hush-hush topics. Worse still is the inability to express one’s sexuality, that leads to mental health concerns too (which again, is often terribly stigmatized in the country).

At the heart of this lies the fact that stigma runs inextricably deeply and widely in India, where anything remotely pertains to sex. People are afraid to get tested for STDs, afraid to ask for condoms or other contraceptives, are afraid to teach others about safe sex, and are, most of all, afraid to just say the word S-E-X.

What’s equally alarming is that even among health practitioners and health caregivers there is a lot of stigmatization of patients/clients. Dr. Aruna Menon, a practicing gynecologist, told me that seldom do young girls come by themselves; they usually have a chaperone of sorts, because the general assumption when you see a single young woman approach a gynecologist is that something is wrong. While gynecologists, owing to the nature of their profession, are less likely to be judgmental, there is a strong incidence of a biased eye among paramedics, nurses, and other medical staff who have a strong tendency of being rude towards such patients.

A lot of this stems from the fact that parents and our society at large instill these notions in the minds of girls from very early on. People are unwilling to have a conversation. A 19-year-old woman, under the condition of anonymity, told me that she has been facing trouble inserting even her finger into her vagina. She knows that she can seek help, but she asks how she can broach this subject to her mother.

She says: “I can’t say I want to finger myself, because I long for some sexual pleasure and that I’m not able to do that! It is too trifling yet at the same time too scandalous a problem to consult a doctor for.”

Think about it; this is our reality. Firstly, Indians have a tough time digesting the fact that women too crave pleasure and that female masturbation is a real thing. Secondly, it just seems wrong for a woman to expect and experience any kind of sexual desire before she’s married. Given such circumstances, how can a young, unmarried woman seek help for a genuine sexual health concern?

In the absence of any other outlets, youngsters resort to the very trusty Dr. Mahindra Vatsa, who writes for Mumbai Mirror. I know of a lot of people who look forward to reading what seem like really preposterous and petulant sexual concerns. I must admit, I have too, laughing and sneering at them. But thinking about it now, there’s a reason so many youngsters continually gravitate towards the ‘sexpert’.

Even in schools, while sex-education is increasingly becoming an active part of many curricula, sex is merely reduced to an act of procreation. Sex for pleasure is often expunged by most teachers. For, in a country that is charged with the idea of traditions, this seems like a Western concept that has meandered in to corrupt the ‘innocent’ youngsters of the country.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, people are also disgruntled with the fact that there is no censorship across over-the-top platforms and that exposure to such content with strong sexual overtones is going to spoil the ‘sanskaar’ of our otherwise unsullied people. (Wink, wink, we are the second most populous country… where of course ‘God’ manufactures babies).

Additionally, there are no governmental policies at present that address sexual and reproductive health  among youngsters, as a consequence of which there is streamlined awareness and increasing dependence on private health care systems, the costs of which are naturally exorbitant.

Dr. Menon also agrees that financial constraints on youngsters hinders their ability to seek proper help and support. Just as a thought exercise, imagine yourself as an 18-year-old walking up to one of your parents and asking them to give you money to go visit a sexologist.

Source: Health Communication Capacity Collaborative

There is some respite in knowing that things are changing, particularly amidst the urban milieu, but a lot of work remains to be done in the rest of the country. Dr. Menon believes that increasing the conversation around this subject will help improve the current situation.

I asked a few people on social media of the terms they’ve heard people use/use themselves, to refer to anything pertaining to sex. Their answers were jokingly pointing at something bigger and slightly worrisome.

To begin with, people could start referring to sex as ‘sex’ instead of ‘banging’ (you’ll find me banging my head against a wall) ‘galat karna’ (since when did a biological process become ‘galat’?!), the cryptic ‘woh’, ‘Ghapaaghap’, ‘Direct Contact’ (are we talking about circuits here?), and similarly painful paraphernalia.

Then we’ll know that we’ve made progress.

Milana Prakash is the Assistant Editor at One Future Collective.

Featured Image source: Aayu and Pihu Show/YouTube.
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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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