Women don’t need an instruction manual on how to behave in society. We have it memorized.

We were given that manual when we were mere children, not old enough or even mature enough to understand the sexual nuances of a simple touch.

The concern that people have for women’s safety in this country is justifiable, and yet it is so misplaced. Stop policing women on how they ought to dress in order to prevent rape. Stop telling them how they need to act in public, how they need to wear their hair and what kind of clothes they need to avoid wearing in order to avoid the attention of rapists. And most of all stop telling women that they need to learn martial arts to protect themselves. Why is the onus of someone else violating our bodies put upon us?

Rape Culture

Why is this fear of us losing control over our bodies instilled in us since day 1?
Why do little 9 year olds know that jutting their elbows out while walking in crowded spaces will discourage strangers from touching them? Why are14 year old girls carrying chilli powder packets and pepper sprays in their bags? Why are grown women afraid of walking home alone late at night, desperately wedging keys between their fingers to use as a weapon against sexual predators?

I am all for stricter law enforcement, severe and capital punishments for the rapists, but what good are these if all they will do is simply establish a fear of authority but never create an understanding of why one person should respect another person’s choices and their body.
We cannot ignore the fact that along with all these measures, real change will only occur if we begin at the grassroot level. In our homes. Within our families. Amongst our friend circles. Within the system itself.

As people of sense, it’s our responsibility to spread awareness amongst ours and the next generation. Here’s what we can do at our level:
We can start by teaching our little cousins and nephews about consent. Tell them that when a woman or anyone else for that matter, says no, it’s not an invitation to pursue them, unlike what most of Bollywood movies and media tells us.
If they ask you questions about sex, do not cower away, answer them sincerely, create a safe space for them to ask doubts, have an open discussion about it. It’s important they know that sex is an extremely normal part of life.

We have to start calling out our friends, cousins, uncles, fathers on their rape jokes and sexist jokes. Open a conversation with them about how making light of these matters makes them sound trivial because, one person’s joke is another person’s validation.

Stop condoning content that perpetuates or glorifies sexism, misogyny, non-consensual activities. This one is difficult considering how everything has sexist undertones these days, but we can definitely try to steer clear of it.

But most of all, we have to start teaching our men that women are not their “property”, that this whole concept of “woh meri bandi hai”, “she’s mine”, “she belongs to me”, that media has perpetuated over the years is utter rubbish because every human is born free on this planet, every human is born as an equal on this planet.
And honestly, that’s all women want. To be treated not as sex objects, but as humans, as equals.

The blog is written by Ardra, a Youth Champion from India in the wake of increasing incidents of rape in India (The recent rape cases that shook India) and as a response to the idea of one-point justice, being demanded by angry citizens, but who fail to realize it as an outcome of consistent and in many cases, structured rape culture. 

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Being a Feminist Gynaecologist in the Patriarchal World of Medicine | #MyGynaecStory

This piece has been published 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 Feminism in India. In this piece, a senior gynaecologist who is associated with the campaign reflects on being a feminist gynaecologist in a patriarchal medical universe.

As a woman and a feminist I am beyond delighted to see this campaign!

It is time for us to claim rights over our own bodies and the narratives of our sexual and reproductive lives. It is critical to start holding accountable the systems that have ignored, oppressed and failed us repeatedly. It is vital to create a new world where this becomes the norm.

The stories being shared are all uniquely personal as well as frustratingly universal. From my experience of work across Asia region, I can say with confidence that these will resonate with all women and girls across all the countries.

And as a practicing gynaecologist I wanted to just offer a glimpse of what this world looks like from the other side of the consulting table/ examination bed.

Here is a short outline of what makes a gynaecologist in our country: what information is taught, what values are inculcated, what kind of a work environment one has to survive and what happens next.

We start off as 18 year olds who have managed to get into a medical college after two years of intense back-breaking studies and classes. Then follow five and a half years of even more intense and exhaustive training which is exclusively biomedical. Facts, formulae, signs, symptoms, diagnosis, etiology, pathology, treatment. 

The patient is only a collection of signs, symptoms, history, and pathology. 

Identify pathology. Solve problem. 

It is a lot like Sherlock Holmes and House MD combined. We are trained to solve puzzles and mysteries, not hand hold and coddle. 

Yes many of us do join it because we want to help people, because we have romantic notions of being like Dr. Livingstone and change the world with our innovations and cure cancer and all that. 

Like any other 18 year old we have our dreams and desires.

But like any other 18 year olds we are also impressionable, insecure, ambitious, lonely, anxious, with feelings, desires, prejudices, ignorance, ideologies, families, friends, obligations, limitations.

We learn from what we see, hear, are told is right. We accept as truth what is taught to us by seniors and experts.

Ward rounds would be mostly impersonal recitals of pathologies and management. We had the very rare teacher/ professor who would speak to patients as if they were real people. In any case when you have 20 patients in each ward and four such wards to cover, names and life stories don’t really matter much beyond when did you first notice this growth/feel the pain/injure yourself/miss a period.

When we were 19 and doing the Paediatric wards rotation, some of us fall in love with a 5 year old child called Ranee admitted for treatment of a brain tumour. We get books and toys for her. We try to drop in during lunch time and play with her. One day when we drop by, her bed is empty. We don’t really allow ourselves to get attached to any other patient like that ever.

We have seniors who routinely crack ‘dirty’ jokes and make derogatory remarks about the women lying naked on the operation table. We have sexist mnemonics to learn things– for example: She Looks Too Pretty Try To Catch Her.

We stand by and hear our Gynaec Professor, a woman, tell the weeping mother of an unmarried girl seeking an abortion “She opened her legs then so why is she resisting now?” She does not offer the girl any pain killer during the abortion so as to ‘teach her a lesson.’

We stand around in the OT silent and upset but unable to articulate why. No one says a word about rape, consent, what happened to the man/boy who made her pregnant, the consequences on the mental health of this girl and the shame felt by her mother.  We feel complicit in this torture and have no idea what to do.

The hospital I worked in had thousands of deliveries in a year and we knew that sometimes when a woman gave birth to a girl the family would not come to take her home. We took rounds in the Burns ward to examine women who would say with their dying declaration that it was their fault and not to blame the husband for anything. No one ever discussed with us how come it was always young mothers with two daughters or how come so many young women’s sarees caught fire because the ‘stove burst’ at 2 am. 

We never discussed domestic violence, rape, dowry, police and legal system abuses. 

We were taught that India has a population problem and the solution is female sterilization. Poor people and illiterate people ‘don’t understand what is good for them’. We never discussed why no man ever came in and asked for a vasectomy. 

Our forensic textbook said we needed to do a two- finger test to ‘prove’ rape. We learnt about gay and lesbian sex in the chapter under deviant sex, along with bestiality and necrophilia. We laughed over the idea of having sex with animals, we stood in grim silence observing post mortems. We threw up, we cried, we fainted, we soldiered on.

Yes there were a handful who never cared so much, yes there were more than a handful who were in it for a lucrative career. But the vast majority would have definitely benefitted from a regular mainstreaming of gender and rights and a connecting to medicine as a healing art. 

The residency training was brutal the seniors were hostile and uncaring and thoughtless. We had no place to sleep or even pee when we were on call. No one looked out for us to eat any meals or even have water. The hostel rooms had barely any hot water, toilets were often un-useable, rats came into the rooms at night. 

Until you have ever run through a corridor at 2 am with a patient on a trolley because the helper staff is busy, while also carrying blood bags , gloves and stethoscope on an empty stomach and knowing that you will be awake all the way till 4 pm the next day, don’t judge your ObGyn too harshly. 

We made it through 8 years of training without ever hearing the word patriarchy or sexism or misogyny. We had no internet. We had no contact with the feminist movement.

I know someone who did medicine from the Army and told me that during surgery the anaesthetists would wink and let everyone cop a feel of the woman’s breasts since she was unconscious. It made him sick to tell me this. It makes me sick to write it.

My story is now 25 years old but even now I know of medical students who say there are rape jokes on ward rounds, college festivals have questions about gang rape and female students are policed about the clothes they wear at fests.

So, yes they may be judgemental and patronizing and even uncooperative and that sucks. But remember that they are as much a product of the system as any one of us. Check out this brilliant video where Philip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison experiment tells us about how good apples and bad apples may not matter as much as the barrels and the barrel maker. 

https://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil/transcript?language=en

Remember that modern medicine emerged from a strong patriarchal uprising which resulted in the witch hunts. It was never a women- centered touchy-feely happiness- and- joy system. 

It started with barber surgeons and flirted with leeches and purgatives. It also included Hail Marys and branding. If you study the history of medicine you will come across a hundred Fathers. Father of Psychology Gather of Radiology even a Father of Gynaecology ( who studied a certain surgical technique on slave women without any anaesthesia based on the belief that they had a high pain threshold). 

There are no Mothers of Pathology or Microbiology or anything because women were not allowed into medical colleges. Women were seen as ‘natural’ nurses due to their maternal and caring instincts. They were of course underpaid, over worked and never received the kind of professional respect and opportunities that the male doctors did. 

The system has been anti-women from its very inception.

Of course it is now the VERY NEW New Age and we must demand better but it’s not going to come out of a vacuum. 

Out of a thousand doctors who undergo this harsh training only a handful become the kind of rich and successful that people imagine everyone does.  Out of the thousands trained with only bio-medical focus, hardly a handful discover feminism for themselves.

When I first started working in the development sector and learnt with awe that there was a whole language an entire field of work that resonated with and validated my feelings –words like feminism, gender justice, social justice, accountability, I remember asking a very prominent women’s rights academic—Where was the women’s rights movement when I was studying medicine??

I have been to many women’s rights meetings where I have had women look askance at me as soon as I introduce myself as a gynaecologist.

We need to remember that we are all in this together. Doctors can be feminists and women can be patriarchal. Yes doctors have more power in the current scenario. They will continue to have the power of knowledge, but let us work to find common ground whereby they don’t feel they need to be the arbiter of your morals or private lives. 

I will leave you here with a quote from Rudolf Virchow, considered to be the Father of Public Health. It is still relevant and we can see the resonance in it of a very established feminist principle—The Personal in Political!

“Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing more than medicine on a large scale.”

Asia Safe Abortion Partnership and Haiyya are coming together to organize their first Youth Advocacy Institute in Delhi from 17th – 19th January, open for youth leaders – doctors, paramedics and women working in SRHR Spaces. To know more and apply, see this form

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Posted in Access and Barriers, Access For Young People, Advocacy, Collaborations, Feminism, VAW, SRHR, Laws and International Conventions, Other SRHR Fields, Power of Partnerships, Pro-Choice Discussions, Services, Providers and Hotlines, Stigma, Religion and Social Barriers, Youth Corner | Comments Off on Being a Feminist Gynaecologist in the Patriarchal World of Medicine | #MyGynaecStory

Awareness: The only approach to abort stigma

When the removal of a foetus can save the life of an adult, therefore avoiding mishaps of sacrificing two lives at a time, termination of pregnancies should gain its approval.

 In Malaysia, abortion is permissible when a pregnancy may pose physical or mental danger to a pregnant woman. When safe abortion is not available, desperate pregnant women tend not to keep their foetus till delivery but to head for unsafe abortion.

Global data indicates that 13% of maternal deaths were caused by unsafe abortions and topping the list was haemorrhage (severe bleeding), which was 25%. This clearly shows the impact of having an unsafe abortion.

Imagine handing over a woman’s fate to another person who has no medical qualifications, no proper tools, not even a proper clinic, but claims to be “experienced” in terminating pregnancies. That would be more cruel to both mother and foetus in comparison to a safe abortion.

Stigma in society is the reason for these helpless women to resolve to unsafe abortion.

When having physical relationship is taboo, sexuality education will automatically be hindered. On the other hand, an open-minded society would lead to a more formal education system and abortion would be permissible in certain circumstances.

Unfortunately, the Malaysian education system is lacking the elements of CSE (Comprehensive Sexuality Education). CSE is extremely essential due to the fact that age of consent in Malaysia is 16 years old. This explains why teenagers are still not well equipped with knowledge about sexual relationships upon reaching the minimum age to consent to their participation in them. This contributes to unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions as well as heart-breaking cases of baby dumping.

According to the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM), among 120 doctors and nurses asked about the law pertaining to abortion in Malaysia, only 57% correctly knew it. This shocking result indicates that medical personnel may be debating on whether a pregnant woman should carry on her pregnancy based on false perceptions. All decisions made are at the expense of the woman.

Awareness is the only approach to abort the stigma. Therefore, abortion ought to not only remain legal in Malaysia, but the knowledge of abortion and sexuality education should also be implanted in the education system to protect the rights of pregnant women.

The rights of pregnant women should not be ignored when making decisions, especially when their safety is threatened. Their final choice should be respected after consultation with a professional doctor.

This letter was written by our Youth Champion SUWEETA XIAO WEI from Malaysia in response to the article- Abortion is definitely not the way to solve the problem

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Autonomy and Abortion Access

beti bachao

 

We need more girls to be born they say. We need to stop the ‘gendercide’ that is taking place across the world, they say. For social justice. For women’s rights. For human rights.

While this is a compelling argument when taken at face value, if we take a moment to examine it more closely, the true nature of the discourse becomes clear. It sounds as though it is for women’s rights but in reality is it putting restrictions on them, using the excuse of sex determination while doing so.

If we are to recognize safe abortion as a right for women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, then we cannot sit in judgement of which reason for it being unwanted is acceptable to us or not. This is especially true when people are uncomfortable around what is called a ‘selective’ abortion, whether it is for the sex of the fetus or a disability.

One could say simplistically that every abortion is in fact a selective abortion! That particular pregnancy is being terminated because it is not wanted. It is being ‘selected out’ of the reproduction cycle for some reason.

But of course when we say ‘selective’ we mean selective for a specific reason. Usually nowadays it is understood to mean a pregnancy being terminated because of the sex of the fetus. In India for example this usually means the selecting out of the female fetus and the choosing of the male fetus to continue.

Both parts of this are important to recognize as selective choices but the discourse, politics, debates and publicity usually focusses only on the abortion which selects out the female fetus. It is this unbalanced approach that has led to the continued failure of various ‘rescue’ programmes as well as the increasing utilization of this as ammunition by the anti- choice groups.

By showing up one of the ‘choices’ as inherently immoral/ cruel/ unfair/ discriminatory, they hope to tar all abortions with the same brush. Choice is inherently a bad idea they seem to say because you ‘cannot trust women’ and ‘they will choose it all wrong’.

Translation: Women will choose things that society/ partriachy will not approve.

It is worth considering if there is ever any true choice? Most “choices” are a direct result of limitations arising from or expectation imposed by a range of conditions such as personal reasons, family reasons, economic reasons (e.g., potential jobs for women, lack of equal pay, lack of maternity benefits, the cost of education) or state policy (e.g., one-child or two-child family norms, military recruitment).

So why do we allow the discussion to focus on macro-level numbers (i.e., country-specific sex ratios) when we should really be addressing individual rights?

Does not the insistence on girl children being born push the burden on individuals while the there is no meaningful intervention taking place to eliminate the gender discrimination that leads individuals to make that choice in the first place? The reality is that “choice” is not really exercised in a vacuum and the State can (and does) interfere with the reproductive freedom of individuals. If we want to ensure that women and couples do not choose to terminate a female fetus, we need to start addressing the reasons why the girl child is so unwanted.

We need to recognize that, like many other choices, this one is being made for the same economic reasons that drive so many others. A girl child is simply a financial liability in a patriarchal traditional culture that would not give that girl an equal opportunity in education, employment, earning capacity or support that would allow her to work after having children. Under this reality, the son basically operates as the old-age pension, social security and retirement plan rolled into one, and so the selection to have make children isn’t so much a “choice” after all.

Hence, long term strategies to address sex-selective abortion should address the lack of economic parity and gender equality first.

Ironically we find that the current rhetoric around the issue argues that– if girls are not born, how will the boys find brides?

It is appalling that such slogans have even been endorsed by government campaigns thus making it obvious that no one is making the link between sex determination as an expression of gender discrimination and the abysmal status of women.

Once again it bears repeating that those who find out it is a male fetus and choose to continue are also selectively choosing a reproductive outcome which is never penalized or even recognized as a selective act.

The entire issue of the sex ratio and the ‘imbalance’ is also something that is accepted at face value and never questioned.  There are projections of violence against women, rape, polyandry – as though there is no exploitation and abuse in societies with a ‘good’ sex ratio! The underlying argument is also a bit of a threat – ‘If you don’t have more girl children, don’t blame us for what happens next. We warned you’.

We live in the same country that worships the Mother Goddesses, considers motherhood to be the highest attainable purpose of any woman’s life, where women are still being killed as witches[i], where dowry is illegal but still being given in different forms and where a woman can be Defence Minister as well as defenseless all at the same time.

It is worth noting that the British passed the Female Infanticide Prevention Act in 1870[ii] in India, a full 100 years before the MTP Act and 110 years before ultrasound machines were being used for sex determination.

All that technology has done is moved the active selection process earlier in the reproductive timeline. It has not created a demand for the male child that did not exist for thousands of years already. It did not create a secondary status for women and make them an economic burden. That was the socio-cultural complex along with the patriarchal constraints which make it difficult for girls to obtain equal education, equal job opportunities, paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work.

We know that selective abortions are also undertaken when the fetus is diagnosed with a disability. Those are usually considered as acceptable because the recognition that such a child would be a burden to its parents and they should be allowed to choose a better life for themselves.

Surely the same argument is valid for parents of a female child when the sex of the child makes her a liability, economically and socially and culturally due to the existing norms.

So do we work to eliminate the discrimination or ‘save’ the fetus?

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Posted in Access and Barriers, Advocacy, International Campaign For Women's Right To Safe Abortion, International Days, Marginalized Women, Other SRHR Fields, Pro-Choice Discussions, Separating Safe Abortion From Sex-Selection, Services, Providers and Hotlines, Stigma, Religion and Social Barriers, Youth | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Autonomy and Abortion Access

Transforming Education with CSE

 images (2)School is a place where much of the powerful life’s battles are played out. By recognizing that most of the young people spend half of their day in the classrooms, they are one of the most important place for talk, learning and building skills. Schools are precisely the place where young people can be engaged in safe, critical talk about bodies, sexuality, relationships, disabilities, young LGBTs, abortion, gender equality and sexuality as a human right. Any effort to clarify and deepen the conceptual understanding of sexual rights as human rights is a deeply political project. It is political both because of the importance and sensitivity of the sexuality and sexual issues, and this work will help to refashion the relationship between the individuals and state. 

Countries that have taken several initiatives in applying sexuality education and preventive programs had positive impact on adolescence life. Thus, such programs are vital in ensuring young people have the opportunity to explore the impact of rigid gender norms on their identities and behavior and to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes which will enable them to form healthy relationships based on equality and respect. One should have the right to survive into adulthood and develop in the broadest sense of the word. 

Comprehensive sexuality includes scientifically accurate information about human development, anatomy and reproductive health as well as information about contraceptives, childbirth and sexually transmitted infections including HIV. This education also includes discussions about family life, relationships, and culture and gender roles and also addresses human rights, gender equality and threats such as discriminations and sexual abuse. One aspects of sexual education that is often considered particularly challenging is the teaching of use of condoms as contraceptives and HIV preventions. Teenage girls who become pregnant leave school because of the inflexibility in the school structure and the lack of extra support and help.

In order to understand the sexual subjectivities more completely, educators need to reconstruct schooling as an empowering context in which we listen to and work with the meanings and experiences of sexuality revealed by the adolescence themselves. Sexuality is the central part of being human. Working on the gender equalities with the young people will contribute to preventing human rights violation and strengthen human rights education which can be a positive force driving towards the gender equality and empowerment. Accurate, easy to understand sexuality education enhances the quality of people’s lives by clarifying misconceptions and helping young people make informed choices. These include protection from harassment, infections and abuses. Sexuality education is a preventive tool against gender based violence, bullying and sexual abuse of children, through this sexuality education children develop awareness around their rights to be free from violence and to have healthy relationships.

Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized groups by gender, social economic status, poverty, nationality, religion and sexual orientation. Inclusive education removes all such barriers and aim towards providing guidance to schools for reflection, planning and action for all children with special needs. The comprehensive and inclusive teaching and learning must be ensured to the greatest extent possible so that the differently abled children are given access to the education curriculum, participation in extracurricular activities, sports, culture, artistic, recreational and leisure activities. To achieve the goal of providing quality inclusive education, qualified personnel using teaching strategies responsive to different learning styles must be ensured alongside their non-differently abled peers for effective learning. 

The lack of understanding in distinguishing inclusion from special education shows the need to seeing the child as the problem to seeing the school as the problem. Inclusive education is different from special education because it aims to bring together children with disabilities into regular classrooms with adjustments to enable participation. Not all disabilities can be prevented so it is important to strive to make the society inclusive so that all children have the opportunity to fully participate in evaluating and rethinking all social problems.

Certain perspectives are not represented in our course material. To speak to both sexes and work across cultures avoiding the social norms, it is crucial to engage ourselves in improving the need to sustain a whole developed child. Transforming education isn’t about the change for the sake of change, it is to strive our teachers develop values in their students to guide them towards the vision of creating a better world and to see what is possible beyond what just is. 

This blog was written by Dolma Tshering Lhamo from Bhutan for a competition organized by our country advocacy network DRUK-Yisa and was awarded the first prize. 

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