Anubhuti has started the Sharir Sanvaadh Abhiyan to promote equal responsibility among partners for safe sex. The name of the campaign could mean a conversation about bodies, or a dialogue between bodies – with an emphasis on conversations or communication. A large factor responsible for practices of unsafe sex (in the larger sense of the term where there is any experience of feeling unsafe during sex) is the lack of conversations between various stakeholders involved. The primary stakeholders of course being the sexual partners involved; but there are secondary stakeholders such as family members who still decide when and how many children are to be had, service providers who supply contraceptives and awareness about safe sex, state personnel who form and implement policies regarding access to sexual and reproductive health, etc.
This campaign therefore has been reaching out to different stakeholders who have an impact on a person’s experience of sex. Negative experiences manifest in the form of domestic violence, sexual violence, rape, sexual diseases, reproductive health complications, maternal mortality as well as infant mortality. Lack of awareness on the part of both men and women do lead to sex becoming unsafe, but this is tied to the agency our patriarchal society allows women over their sexuality. While men are largely introduced to sex in hyper and toxic-masculine ways, women are not accorded any expression of sexuality at all. Such unhealthy and opposing ways of understanding sex and sexual relationships is of course dangerous in a context where we are fighting for gender equity everywhere but there is no equity in the most basic man-woman relationship. There cannot be gender equity without sexual equity, as one young member commented during a meeting with Anubhuti-mentored youth group ‘Raahi’. Anubhuti members are working with Raahi members, with youth in a community called Kolegaon in Thane District, with women and men within this community as well as with health workers on the ground who are primarily responsible for making safe sex information and methods accessible to people.
On 24th November, 2016, a 3-hour workshop was conducted with 25 health workers such as ASHAs, ANMs and LHVs of few health centers of Kalyan Taluka. It began with a discussion on their understanding of violence in which it was obvious that they understood violence in quite a large sense of the term including physical, verbal, sexual and many ways of inflicting violence by behavior and speech. They were then part of an exercise in which they shared their own observations of the negative effects of contraceptive methods such as sterilisation operations, insertion of copper-t, and taking oral pills. Ironically, the first two methods are the ones that are promoted and offered by the state, and women from socio-economically deprived backgrounds have no option but to use these methods since they are affordable. All the participating health workers were women, and many of them categorically stated that condoms were the easiest and safest method to use.
“We know that we inflict violence on women when we convince them to use sterilisation or copper-t”, is how one health worker expressed her anguish while saying that they understand exactly how much these methods are potentially harmful to women because”we are women too”. But one by one they all shared their helplessness because they have targets in which they have to convince a certain number of women to opt for copper-t insertion or sterilisation, and they are under compulsion to meet these targets. Male health workers, who are supposed to reach out to men regarding family planning, have no such targets. This was a telling indicator of how the state views women’s agency and rights over their bodies, sexuality and reproduction.
The workshop did not really end, the participating women instead came to a decision to be as less violent towards fellow women given their restrictive work conditions. They made a list of changes they would bring in their own behavior towards women and a list of recommendations for the state health care system to be more sensitive towards women.
This process continues in which the participants continue to stay in touch with Anubhuti team about certain changes they are starting in their engagements with women on the field and conversations about equal responsibility for safe sex that they are having with their own partners. They have joined Anubhuti’s #SharirSanvaadAbhiyan campaign and their contribution till now has been invaluable.