Monday, July 31, 2017

A Health Line for Women

Swarnima Bhattacharya is a development professional, doing research and writing on gender, health and housing. Re-imagines cities through a feminist lens as co-founder of Feminist Mohalla. A Girl Icon Mentor with Milaan Foundation, training young women in rural spaces, in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Here is her story behind her initiative, Women's Health Line. 

I grew up in Lucknow. I studied in La Martiniere Girls' College, an all-girls institution. Even without knowing anything at all about it, I know that is how the seed of feminism was planted in me. We had a visionary educationist for a Principal, a firm authoritative woman who showed us how never to be apologetic as a "lady boss". We were taught by a group of fantastic women who planted in us the crucial idea of being fearless, fiercely independent and unfailingly supportive of other women. Looking back, I see that my school has played the single most important role, alongside Hindu College where I graduated from, in planting all the ideas I now practice as an individual and professional. My family deserves the deepest gratitude for letting me pursue my professional interests, even though at times my choices are hard for them to understand. But in our country, way too many people struggle with choices imposed upon them by their parents, and so I'm grateful to my family for always trying their best to change with times.

My mother's struggle with menopause and her eventual hysterectomy when I was still in school, really moved me. I remember as a child I often used to worry for my aunties who had no daughters because I felt they didn't have the luxury to talk about menstruation and menopause at home, the way my sister and I could with my mother. I think that's where it started, though I didn't realize it then. As I grew up, I got involved in gender research and feminist activism, I realized just how heavy the burden of silence around women's health is. The moment I stepped out of the safe space of activism and research, I was confronted with deep-rooted inhibitions around women's sexual autonomy and health. That's how I began to see women's health as a social justice issue rather than a medical/scientific one. And I never really got over the shock that urban, educated people with access to tools of the internet and other resources of information, still had no idea about women's health.

The sense of shock at the complete unawareness of even urban women, about their health and bodies, led to the birth of Women's Health Line. We are somehow too used to thinking that with the tools of the internet at our disposal, information and awareness would cease to be a problem. But unfortunately that's not the case. Outside of the rarefied space of activism and academia, there is a disturbing silence on all subjects pertaining to women's health, hygiene, reproductive rights, bodily autonomy and basic awareness regarding healthy and safe practices. The fact the fitness was increasingly become equated with slimming, was irksome. So was the sale of "tummy tuckers" and "breast-firming butters". It made me extremely angry. I realised it needed re-education, not education. Because the information and education we have been exposed to, has not been gendered at all.

Challenges in the work that I do center on the usual: Trolling, eye-rolling, incredulity - in terms of behavior from men I regularly happen to interact with. There's always so much unease when one talks about feminist work, or about organizations that work with a feminist ethos at their core. It's very difficult for men to somehow realize they aren't the "nice guys" they think they are, after all :p So these things take a huge toll, often affecting inter-personal relationships in a big way. I have often encountered questions from some men, such as "oh but why just women's health? Why is men's health not important?" For some odd reason (patriarchy), it is difficult for some men to understand why they need to place themselves under greater scrutiny, for their beliefs and understanding on gender. And I encounter such men very frequently, and it takes a huge emotional and mental toll. So, basically nothing unexpected, but deeply upsetting nevertheless.  

In India, the situation is rather dismal, especially among the rural and urban poor. Access to healthcare is a huge problem, coupled with the near-complete unawareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights. I recall being deeply disturbed while doing a research on the government's family planning programs, and seeing how female sterilization had become the cornerstone of that. More that 95% of people being sterilized, were women. And almost always in very unsanitary conditions, in dingy camps, sometimes without proper explanation or consent. We are still a country where girls are not allowed to go to schools when they start menstruating and women's access to workplaces becomes difficult after childbirth. While the recent Maternity Bill is welcome in some ways, it still doesn't solve the fundamental problem that the oppression women face in general, get written into the state of healthcare for them as well. 

In a nutshell, we need to look at women's health as a social justice issue. There are way too many gaps even in the new empowerment narratives around women's health,and there has always been the deep malaise in the healthcare sector that is faced by non-heterosexual women. The first, and most important, step to combat all these issues is a repackaged approach to sexuality education at school-- how it must contain lessons on body, autonomy, consent, conversation with parents as well as digital security. Women's health is always treated as a medical issue, hence the profusion of several spaces online that are focused on pregnancy, post-pregnancy etc. However, this new narrative of talking about motherhood-- no matter how empowering-- is still unable to deal adequately with serious, deep-rooted and pervasive issues like post-partum depression, female infertility, surrogacy, adoption, single motherhood, equal parenting and a whole lot of other such things. It has become vital in this day and age to include in our narratives the invisible and chronic illnesses like endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease etc, which are affecting millions of women,  from a lifestyle perspective, in terms of how it affects work, inter-personal relationships and quality of life and living. Our narrative must also include women with disabilities. 

This is how patriarchy impacts women's health: by not only blindsiding issues related to women's health, pain, physical & mental illnesses, but by also inuring us to this climate of non-questioning. Because the way women view their bodies, relate to it, and care for it (or not) are mediated by a thick social lens-- modesty, virtue, self-effacing motherhood, taboos of purity and pollution etc. Women's health is at the fulcrum of a lot of significant things-- domestic economy, children's nutrition, access to workplace, access to education etc. And the complexity of what it implies has to be dissected, and understood well. 

With Women's Health Line, We plan to be a holistic space providing all kinds of solutions to women's healthcare problems: awareness, safe space for discussions, practical products they can use to solve problems (PeeBuddy, breast pumps, biodegradable sanitary napkins, menstrual cups etc) and a re-imagined program for sexuality education in schools. We do not endorse slimming and fairness products and our content endorses a feminist, body-positive and sex-positive view on health. We are also focusing on women's mental health, as well as menopause. While a lot of digital spaces now engage with pregnancy-related information (which is extremely important), our focus is also to dismantle the motherhood myth and talk about female infertility, choice of not having kids, adoption and surrogacy. And by providing both awareness as well as products, we feel we are providing a two-pronged solution.

Follow Women's HealthLine here.