In a survey conducted by Delhi-based campaigning non-profit Haiyya with unmarried women in Delhi, to understand their experiences and stigma with sexual and reproductive health services, as low as 1% of women said they had received information pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights from their mothers, doctors or government campaigns. 53% of these women felt unsure if the sexual health problems they were facing were severe enough to visit a gynaecologist. These findings underlining that stigma around unmarried women’s sexuality impacts how they view their sexual health, and puts their lives at risk, are published in the ‘Health Over Stigma’ campaign report by Haiyya.
In the launch of the Health Over Stigma study, some rather shocking numbers were revealed. As low as 20% of the unmarried women Haiyya surveyed knew about the abortion law in India, and 95% had never visited a gynaecologist to take consultation on sex, pleasure or contraception.
Unmarried women are seen as desexualised beings, devoid of desire or sexual agency.
The report features first person narratives from a few respondents, underlining the stigma faced by unmarried women in accessing sexual health services. One harrowing story tells of a woman who tried to get an abortion, but had to endure a lecture about the importance of motherhood and the irresponsibility of “killing a child” from the doctor who was meant to perform the abortion.
In India, women’s bodies are seen as the site of the family’s honour. Of course, it is unquestioned that women receive little to no information about sexual health or pleasure before marriage. Unmarried women are seen as desexualised beings, devoid of desire or sexual agency. Women’s sexuality is so taboo that most women internalise the shame of taking control of their reproductive and sexual health. The report reflects this as well, where most women were likely to prolong or evade going to a gynaecologist to get checked up.
When women do visit gynaecologists, they are often subjected to moral policing, shaming, reproductive coercion and may be denied services or not given the accurate information required to take an informed decision.
Natasha Chaudhary, the co-director of Haiyya, said, “We all had approached our sexual health from a place of fear, and we could hold service providers accountable, with no bargaining power as a community. We began talking to more women and found that despite different experiences, we were bound by our stories of isolation and helplessness. 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 organising unmarried women as a collective and moving the onus and accountability on medical institutions.”
53% of these women felt unsure if the sexual health problems they were facing were severe enough to visit a gynaecologist.
The Health Over Stigma campaign is led by unmarried women across Delhi in a bid to stop the tokenistic way in which women are given decision making abilities about their sexual health, by fighting for the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for unmarried women. A group of over 150 defenders have mobilized and engaged with over 5,000 women through meetings called the ‘Vagina Dialogues’ and other on ground outreach activities. They also hold service providers accountable for non-judgemental service through their ‘10 Commandments’, which are supported by over 50,000 people. Find out more about the Health Over Stigma campaign here, or follow them on Instagram.