Despite a thriving market for non-veg jokes, sex is taboo and its discussion largely off-limits in India. Parents hesitate to bring up the topic with their children, and schools are reticent about introducing sex education in their curriculum.
It’s this unmentionable approach to sexual health that Delhi-based NGO Haiyya wants to change for the better, with an initiative they have titled #healthoverstigma.
From talking about sexual health to visiting gynaecologists, the young and single Indian girl has a trying time. The Haiyya team encourages change through shared stories and action.
The lack of clarity on sex impacts everybody, but none more than unmarried women. “We receive little to no information on sex,” says Mrinalini Dayal, campaign manager at Haiyya. “The stigma is ingrained so deep within us that whether it’s pregnancy or an infection, our first response is fear.”
The Health Over Stigma project aims to create a safe haven for women to approach and access sexual and reproductive health services. It addresses a variety of questions, from lack of awareness to discrimination among doctors and health practitioners towards unmarried women.
“We are an organisation filled with young, unmarried women,” says Mrinalini. “We realised that awareness wasn’t enough — there were many other factors to consider. How could we get women to talk about their sexual health? We want to raise collective consciousness — empower a community of young women to stand up for themselves.”
The campaign aims to further Haiyya’s goal of community organising, which aims at bringing societal changes by mobilising people who are themselves directly impacted by the changes.
The Haiyya team will launch their Week of Action, in a bid to stimulate conversation among women about their sexual health.
Over one week, the programme seeks to get the word out, and bring young women in contact with each other to have a fruitful discussion on sexual health and demand access to sexual and reproductive health services sans judgement. A tweetathon kicks off the awareness initiative, followed by a storytelling drive — a crowd-sourced collection of real-life stories about women’s experiences with stigma around sex and their bodies.
The week of action wraps up with a session with two gynaecologists, a pair of mother and daughter who are well-abreast of the taboo on sex. The duo will offer information on sexual health and conduct tests, vaccinations and screenings at a nominal cost. The event is especially meant for women who have never received gynaecological advice before.
Using the campaign, Haiyya is also building a network of volunteers called the SRHR Defenders.
The SRHR Defenders is a leadership group of single women groomed to engage with the community in and around Delhi and lead their own initiatives promoting sexual health and open dialogue. The first set of Defenders, comprising 15 women, joined the project earlier this month.
In their first activity, inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, the SRHR Defenders organised a conversation over a picnic in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens. Eight women came together to share their stories and exchange information on a plethora of topics with a quiz.
The mode of conversation is in tandem with Haiyya’s New Narratives approach that approaches social conversation among the youth from new means of engagement. Previously, the team has used cinema, music and spoken word poetry as means of discourse too.
“The SRHR Defenders will also work on bridging the gap between women and gynaecologists,” says Mrinalini. “In forthcoming months, we aim to create a set of community guidelines that addresses the issues that stop women from approaching gynaecologists and what will motivate them to seek help. We hope it will help gynaecologists understand how to treat young, unmarried women without judgement.”
Community engagement is at the heart of the Health over Stigma campaign, giving women access to health services they are often deprived of, and encouraging them to lead others by example. After all, it’s time we stopped thinking of sex as something to hide – our health and happiness depend on it.