It is said that a story based on personal experience is most relatable as it talks about real people rather than distant statistics. I have been fortunate to have lived in countries where women have been accorded with their reproductive rights by the law of the land. In India, the country where I was born, laws allow abortion until 20 weeks of pregnancy and in England, where I currently live, the National Health Service (NHS) website clearly states that abortion is the woman’s choice only and offers non-judgmental advice as to how to proceed.
However, I have noticed a rather peculiar behaviour, in stark contrast to what I have experienced in England, amongst Indian doctors and the general public when it comes to exercising rights outside the ambit of the institution known as marriage. I have been diagnosed with an infection of the urinary tract a few times in my life; the first being right after a surgery and other times when I did not know the exact cause. However, none of them were related to sexual activity which is also one of the causes. The two times I went to a gynaecologist in India, I was asked straight away if I was ‘married’. The second time, she even went to do an ultrasound and brought my mother in, as if to proclaim that I had indulged in some dubious activity and become pregnant; of course, they did not find any baby inside in case you were wondering. In both cases, I was not denied treatment but the narrative just did not seem right. Especially, when in the NHS I was asked if I was sexually active in a clinical manner and then the doctor moved on to other causes. On the other hand, I have heard aunties casually commenting, “Oh you know the couple who got recently married? Heard she had to be taken to the doctor for UTI treatment” as if it was an expected consequence. It really amazes me how me, as a 21-year old single girl was treated but how that automatically changes after you enter the institution of marriage – you are no longer judged, but they say “Ye cheez toh hota hai” (such things happen in Hindi).
My experience revolved around the cultural attitudes around a simple infection, but there are issues such as menstruation and abortion amongst unmarried women which should be looked at even more closely. The taboo created by members of society, including older women themselves, around menstruating women is so deep-rooted that courts need to intervene to allow women into religious establishments and girls miss school during this time due to lack of access to sanitary products. With regard to abortion for unmarried women, I have heard of cases where hospitals ask for the consent of a relative even when the law states that it is solely the woman’s choice.
As always, there are a few worthy organisations championing these issues on the ground. Indian Dreams Foundation (IDF), where I personally volunteer with, have created a grassroots campaign in the slums of Agra to break taboos around menstruation by involving all stakeholders – girls, mothers and teachers, with the hope to increase school attendance and instill confidence in girls. Another organisation I have come across online is CREA, which conducts multiple trainings and workshops around sexual and reproductive health rights throughout the year and spearheads initiatives such as ‘It’s my body’ which uses sports as a platform to address the topic of autonomy girls have over their bodies.
But for a country as large as India, a few organisations cannot bring about the change in cultural attitudes required single-handedly. Our own communities, starting with our families, should understand that a woman has indisputable control over her body. Stop judging us for our decisions and creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. And most importantly, accept that sex happens and talk about it with your children – we did not become the second most populous in the country in the world magically!