For unmarried women in India, visiting a ‘lady doctor’ is a rarity. In addition to handling the uncomfortable feeling that comes with opening up about your reproductive health, many turn away due to the stigma that continues to exist in the nation. Even to this day, most women are asked the question of whether they are married, rather than whether they are sexually active. Other than a few crowd-sourced lists of nonjudgmental gynecologists in the nation, most unmarried women are skeptical of going in for routine checkups and many warning signs of sexual and reproductive health concerns go unnoticed. When it comes to basic knowledge regarding sexual health concerns, women still look to other women, rather than professionals for the fear of being judged.
But the Delhi based campaigning and Non Profit organization Haiyya conducted a survey in 2018 that featured over 750 unmarried women in Delhi. Backed by this, the ‘Health over Stigma’ campaign report was published which depicted the lack of knowledge, Indian women have regarding Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights. Some of the revealing facts were that only less than 1% of women get information regarding sexual health from their mothers, relatives, government or sexual health providers, only 20% of the participants knew about the abortion law in the nation and most importantly, 53% of the women were not sure if their sexual health problem was severe enough to visit a gynecologist.
During their meetings, those in attendance spoke about how harrowing their experience was when faced with gynecologist lecturing them on their “irresponsibility” for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Started in 2017, the campaign attempts to bridge the gap between unmarried women and sexual health providers as this demographic still continues to be invisible when it comes to receiving their basic sexual and reproductive health rights. Natasha Chaudhary, Co-director, Haiyya, said, “We all had approached our sexual health from a place of fear, and we could not hold service providers accountable, with no bargaining power as a community. This issue has persisted because power lies with age-old institutions where women are disengaged from decision-making processes that affect their very own lives. We needed to flip this by organizing unmarried women as a collective and moving the onus and accountability on medical institutions.”
Backed by the statistics from their survey, Haiyya and Sacchi Saheli, a partner organization reached out to Delhi Medical Council in April 2019. They wrote in a complaint letter conveying the issues at hand and the urgency with which the situation needs to be addressed. They put forth the demand to accept a code of conduct among Gynaecologists that should be implemented across the nation, starting with Delhi. Following the campaign, in August 2019, the Delhi Medical Association and Delhi Medical Council have committed to answering this need to provide safe and nonjudgemental sexual health services in New Delhi. The organizations expressed their solidarity with Health Over Stigma to provide stigma-free treatments for unmarried women and also to provide support in taking the campaign to the Indian Medical Association.
Currently, the campaign is attempting to bring other Medical boards and private hospital brands on-board with the cause. Through their social media platforms, the campaign has reached even more people, with many women writing in their personal stories of stigma and discrimination when visiting gynecologists.
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