First Published on Feminism in India as a part of the Health Over Stigma campaign, which is aimed at dismantling the stigma surrounding sexual health of unmarried women, and demanding accountability from medical service providers for stigma-free, non-judgemental sexual and reproductive healthcare services. Join the #MyGynaecStory wave by sharing your own story as an unmarried woman accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare by posting it on your social media or emailing us. In this piece, Sreejani, Senior Campaigner for the Health Over Stigma campaign reflects on the campaign’s journey, the stories she heard, and the need for unmarried women to join hands and come together for this cause.
By Sreejani Malakar
Health Over Stigma is a revolutionary campaign led by young, unmarried women in New Delhi to dismantle the stigma surrounding sexual health of unmarried women, and demanding accountability from medical service providers for stigma-free, non-judgemental sexual and reproductive healthcare services.
It only started because one unmarried woman mustered her courage and finally shared her story of shame and violence when she visited a gynaecologist. She was traumatised –uncertain and unsure of what her present and future would look like, since she was totally alone and couldn’t speak a word about it. The last thing she needed was to be told that she was killing a child.
This happened two years ago, when we knew almost nothing about where to begin. We did not have the trust necessary to share our emotions and feelings of shame and we didn’t even have any belief or validation that this was real. We had no doctors to stand with us or a platform to put forward our demands. But what we did have was a strong urge to bring change; of building a world where we would not be judged because we decided to live our lives the way we wanted to and to be treated like any other human who has desires, pleasure and choice!
IT ONLY STARTED BECAUSE ONE UNMARRIED WOMAN MUSTERED HER COURAGE AND FINALLY SHARED HER STORY OF SHAME AND VIOLENCE WHEN SHE VISITED A GYNAECOLOGIST.
The conversation started small – just within our friends and close circles. As our stories unfolded, we realised that we had similar feelings, and no woman was alone in the race of making her life better. We shared our emotions of fear, shame, stigma, rage and anger. Something was terribly wrong; not with us, but with age old normative societal structures such as marriage – conventionally thought as the license to have sex or to even think about our sexual health and choices (notwithstanding the fact that many women, even after decades of feminist struggles and fight for equality are not able to share their sexual expressions freely even within a marriage).
But the problem was with the societal systems of controlling unmarried women’s choices. It was wrong for the authorities sitting in powerful pedestals to take decisions for us without even knowing or understanding our lived realities! The circles began to grow bigger, with more women joining in, providing support to each other and creating safer spaces to share their stories.
Someone shared how her mother had been ashamed of introducing her as her own daughter because she was unmarried and had to go to a gynaec! Another woman shared how a gynaecologist told her that, “…nowadays women just want something there.” Someone shared how she was denied service and then charged more as she was in a vulnerable situation already, and the doctor knew that she would have to pay anyway as she had to get an abortion and there was no way out. Another story narrated how a doctor refused to ask a woman if she was sexually active, assumed that it was because of a PCOS issue and gave her the wrong medicines. She was in terrible pain until she got to know the exact reason (not from the doctor though).
Another woman convinced herself very hard that there was nothing wrong with her and kept her vaginal infection just to herself and prayed that someday, it would go away. In Gorakhpur, a woman ended up killing herself trying to self abort her child by looking at a YouTube video. She was just 27.
Women grow up in dangerous environments, making constant efforts to seek validation, struggling to claim space in every possible way. Throughout history, the only purpose the woman’s body served was to protect her family honour, which was tied to her marital status, rather than being recognised as an independent identity. For an unmarried woman, it becomes harder as they do not fit into any boxed identity. Their bodies have always been considered either a desexualised body, with no sexual feelings, desires or concerns, or a hypersexualised one, which needs to be constantly monitored to ensure chastity.
FOR AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, IT BECOMES HARDER AS THEY DO NOT FIT INTO ANY BOXED IDENTITY. THEIR BODIES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN CONSIDERED AS THE DESEXUALIZED BODY, WITH NO SEXUAL FEELINGS, URGE OR CONCERNS.
It is even more difficult for a woman identifying with alternate sexualities. Sexual desires of women identifying with an alternate gender/sexuality is not even in the scene. I have heard my friends talk about how their sexual life was completely dismissed as they were not engaging in heterosexual peno-vaginal sex which meant that there could be no problem in their/our sexual life as we are not having sex at all! Funny right? But let me tell you, there is more to it. Controlling our sexuality has been the most convenient path of abiding by the set dominant structures created by some sections of society.
This had to stop. At least, we had to begin. The onus has to be shifted: if equality is the norm, then for how long will it just be women struggling to snatch what they ought to get, have and enjoy? The authorities have to take responsibility for their actions and to change their behaviour and provide us with non-judgmental services because this is not a favour that we were asking for. This is our right!
Our campaign Health Over Stigma was an unmarried women’s movement that challenged the present situation and demanded stigma free services. We shared our stories widely. We went to the streets to talk to more women, to show that we exist and that our issue was real and not “soft”! From a closed door conversation, it became a conversation beyond Delhi. We opened up circles in 4 other cities. More than 700 women in Delhi came forward to share their experiences (through a survey) and a high majority of them had stigma stories to share.
In our journey of bringing change, a number of non-judgmental doctors joined us and stood by us. Some of them acknowledged how hard it was for them to listen to these stories, to reflect on their own behaviour and now they had to make change by being at the centre of it. Together, we presented our stories and demands to bigger bodies with decision making power. With the strength we had, our campaign story did spread out with media outreach, and finally two influential decision making bodies publicly decided to ensure stigma free services to unmarried women! This has been a huge win for us. From starting small, to gradually making ourselves heard and establishing our identity as unmarried women, and finally being able to do this. It was a hope that in the future, somewhere, some women will not be scared to talk about their sexual health, go to the doctor, get treated and live a healthy life!
As much as this has given us the strength that we needed, we know that our story is not yet over. We are in the middle of our journey where we have made ourselves heard and paved a path for a better future. However, we need to walk many more miles and leave no stone unturned until we can bring change in the socio-cultural belief system, create safe neighbourhoods for unmarried women. This movement will continue until all doctors pledge to and practice stigma free services, and no woman in India feels hesitation in expressing concerns about their sexual health to a doctor.
This can only happen when we are more in number, bigger in strength and louder in our voices! So, let us move forward, join the campaign of Health Over Stigma and start writing newer stories – stories of equality and of wonderful memories.
Sreejani is leading the campaign Health Over Stigma with other young unmarried women in New Delhi, where her vision is to make sexual and reproductive health services accessible and stigma free to all women (from diverse socio-economic and gender-sexual identity) in the country and to create an enabling environment for the same.