Unmarried women's experiences with SRH Services

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We will discuss unmarried women’s experiences with SRH services in India!

Why do you think unmarried/single women have unique experiences while accessing SRH services?

**In India, unmarried women are not seen as individuals but as public projects who need to be schooled not just by the families but also other institutions like school, colleges, and unfortunately even medical institutes. People in our country actually believe that it is their moral obligation to ensure that no unmarried woman is breaking the neatly drawn boundaries of the society (especially those of ‘chastity’ and ‘purity’) which reflects in the treatment unmarried or single women receive when they try to access SRH services. * Our socio-cultural norms are rooted in patriarchal constructs and taboos that curb women’s sexuality, choices, stigmatize pre-marital sex, and hush conversations around consent. When young unmarried women go to access sexual & reproductive health services (SRHR), they are often met with judgmental and also illegal behavior that shames them and discourages them from accessing further services. They feel inhibited in accessing these services as the doctors and the clinics do not provide a safe space. The crisis has arisen due to the years and decades of domination by the society on women’s sexuality, body and life in general. A woman’s body is considered her ‘husband’s’ or family’s property and hence people tend to consider that the sexual and reproductive issues should only be the concerns of married women. The possibility of other issues that may be related to Sexual & reproductive health are not considered and this is internalised by young women. Therefore women are actually forced to make choices that are not in their best interest and often put themselves at risk.

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That’s so sad to hear. Can you share any examples?

How does stigma and culture while we are growing up and shape these experiences?

Will give a very basic example of a woman’s bra strap showing in a public space, especially if that woman does not have ‘markers of marriage’ on her (sindoor, mangalsutra, etc). Her bra strap becomes a public project - people will comment, give suggestions on how to conceal it, pass judgements, etc like it is their duty to show that woman the ‘right path’. Patriarchy has been able to sustain itself due to this nexus between families, government, institutions and society at large which agrees that unmarried women need to be checked.

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Growing up, we have taught how not to sit, especially with men around. There is so much stigma surrounding mensuration - do not enter the kitchen, do not go near the temple. Menstrual products are wrapped in black packets to cover the shame a woman is expected to feel for a natural and basic body function. When i was in school, I was pulled aside by my teacher during a basketball game because she felt that my breasts were too big and could be a distraction for the male students on the ground. All these stigmas are not only disabling for young women but also deeply ingrains in them the notion that they are inferior to the opposite gender and instils in them a need to fit into the category of the “good girl” to be completely accepted by the society

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This is really appaling, I am sorry you had to experience this. Do you think religion plays a role?

Absolutely! I identify as an atheist but I am born in a religious Hindu family and was made aware about the notions of ‘purity’ very young. Our Hindu laws are based on Manusmriti, a text that says - * In case a woman tears the membrane [hymen] of her Vagina, she shall instantly have her head shaved or two fingers cut off and made to ride on Donkey.

  • It is the duty of all husbands to exert total control over their wives. Even physically weak husbands must strive to control their wives.
  • On failure to produce offspring with her husband, she may obtain offspring by cohabitation with her brother-in-law [devar] or with some other relative [sapinda] on her in-law’s side. He who is appointed to cohabit with a widow shall approach her at night, be anointed with clarified butter and silently beget one son, but by no means a second one.
  • A barren wife may be superseded in the 8th year; she whose children die may be superseded in the 10th year and she who bears only daughters may be superseded in the 11th year; but she who is quarrelsome may be superseded without delay.

Things we get from these quotes -

  1. If a woman loses her virginity before marriage she should be publicly shamed and humiliated
  2. Married women should be controlled by their husbands and their only job is to be in the service of their husbands
  3. The only use of a married woman is to produce a son and if her husband is incapable of producing a son then it is her duty to turn to another man from the same lineage as her husband to provide the family with an heir. The woman should not enjoy or derive any sort of pleasure from this activity

4.A woman who cannot produce a son should be disposed. Worse than that are women who have a voice (they should be disposed immediately)

Unfortunately, not much has changed. Women and their sexuality are still suppressed and sex for women is still limited to procreation or giving birth to a child and preferably a male child. We might not be paraded on a donkey for being sexually active but women are still shamed and ridiculed for it.

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What are the services unmarried women access that they are invisibiled in?

Women are invisibiled in accessing most services especially when they are single or unmarried. While accessing SRH services, adult unmarried women are asked to get consent of their parents or partners for wanting an abortion which completely denies them agency over their own bodies and is illegal. If we talk about Covid, the PPE kits for doctors and patients are designed keeping a man’s body in mind. No thought is given to menstruators and their needs. There is hardly any verified information given to women in their early years to enable them to take informed decisions regarding their bodies and sexuality which results in women self medicating and deprioritizing their sexual health and also feeling shame in accessing SRH services

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That’s really interesting about PPE suits and covid! What other services should/do unmarried women access? What about STI tests? Do they need to visit a gynaecologist even if they’re not sexually active?

It is imperative for women to get tested for STIs if they are sexually active and/or have multiple partners.
Getting tested can help find an infection early or when you have no symptoms. This is important so that:

  • You can get treatment and avoid long-term problems, such as not being able to have a baby (infertility).
  • If you know that you have an STI, you can get treatment and avoid spreading the infection to others.
  • If you know that you have an STI, you can tell your sex partner(s) so they can be treated and can avoid spreading the infection.

It is highly advisable to visit a gynaecologist even if you are not sexually active to make sure that you are maintaining your menstrual health or to check for UTIs or other infections, for pap tests and for general maintenance of our sexual and reproductive health like we would visit a dentist to maintain our dental health. I would also like to reiterate that visiting a gynaec should not be limited to the time we face an issue but we should also reach out to gynaecologists for information regarding our bodies instead of reaching out to friends or googling for information

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What is a message you would like to share with single women? Or what should they know if they’re accessing services?

  • You are not obligated to get consent from your family or partners for abortion if you are above the age of 18
  • Abortions are legal in India upto 22 weeks of pregnancy and upto 24 weeks under special circumstances
  • It is important to get information from verified sources instead of depending on age old myths and on unqualified friends or acquaintances
  • your pleasure is as important as your partner’s and there is no shame in being sexually active, irrespective of age, gender, sexuality and marital status
  • Easy and stigma- free access to SRH is your fundamental right
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Would also love to talk about my campaign #HealthOverStigma which fights for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of unmarried women.
Haiyya decided to work on challenging the stigma around access to safe SRH by unmarried women as nobody was talking about it. Unmarried women’s sexuality and sexual health went highly unnoticed, and considered a soft issue by the medical service providers and most importantly, the onus was just left on the community with no accountability from the service providers even though it was our right. In 2017, the community of unmarried women initiated the campaign Health Over Stigma as part of Haiyya to:

  • Visibilise the community of unmarried women and our choices, desires and demands related to our sexual and reproductive health
  • To break the silence around SRH; Encourage women to speak up and share their stories without fear to legitimise the issue!
  • To start a movement to shift the onus to the medical fraternity as access to SRH is our fundamental right

You can follow our Insta page - https://www.instagram.com/healthoverstigma/

You can also reach out to our pool of doctors who have promised stigma- free services to all women -
https://www.instagram.com/p/CA5E37YpfRI/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

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This is really valuable information, everyone should be aware of their rights!

Thank you for sharing this about the campaign and the work you’re doing! Are there are any additional resources you would like to add?

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Who and what needs to change in India in order for unmarried women to be able to access high quality and stigma free services?

https://www.instagram.com/dr_cuterus/
https://www.instagram.com/inapurupriate/

These are the links to some great doctors and sex educators who are constantly putting out important content regarding SRHR. You could also reach out to us on Health Over Stigma page if you would like to join our community of fiery women who are fighting for their sexual and reproductive rights.

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