A star crossed relationship : Contraceptives and women in India

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Access to contraception is every woman’s right, but if you ask a woman in India about her experience buying contraceptives, she will probably let you know how harrowing it was! Ranging from annoying smirks to intruding questions and unwelcome remarks from the pharmacist who is almost always a man, the whole encounter is made to be quite embarrassing for the woman. If this is how adult women are treated, one can just imagine the distress of adolescent girls as their sexual behavior is tabooed by social norms, even though it is increasingly common for teenagers to be sexually active.

In India, most people are either unaware or fearful of contraceptives. This leads to low access and less use of these necessities. According to a recent report in The Hindu , only 47% of currently married women use any form of modern contraception.

The general attitude towards contraceptives remains judgmental and prohibitive, often influenced by factors such as marital status, age or social class. Women from lower socio-economic backgrounds or from rural areas have little or no information about contraceptives. Unmarried women and adolescent girls especially find it difficult to access and avail contraceptives. Sexual and reproductive rights are severely compromised.

The complexity is compounded for women in sex work, a heavily stigmatized group whose awareness of sexual and reproductive health issues is lower. They have limited or no awareness and poor access to contraceptives services.

Alliance India’s Abhaya project addresses this gap by working with women in sex work to engage them and their male partners in dialogues on contraceptives and related services. Access to contraceptives is a basic human right, and allows women to have autonomy over her body, sexuality and reproductive process. They help prevent pregnancy when a woman is not prepared for motherhood and allow spacing between children. It remains a challenge to debunk myths, promote awareness and dispel negative attitudes, Abhaya aims to create an enabling enviorment where women can access the contraceptives that meet their needs.

Our Abhaya team has found that young or unmarried women are unable to avail contraceptives at local healthcare centers. They are denied access due to moralistic judgment that they should not be sexually active until they get married. Such a stand is not only a violation of their sexual and reproductive health rights but also compromises their wellbeing. Their inability to access contraceptives leads to unwanted pregnancies and an increased demand for abortions, another stigmatized and difficult-to-access service too often provided by uncertified practitioners or quacks, when women find no support in the health system.

Access to contraceptives must become universal. Both women and men should be given complete information so that they are able to make informed choices. All people have the right to enjoy a healthy sex life and plan a family only when they are ready to, not because they were unaware or unable to access contraceptive services.

Societal attitudes must change. All who need contraceptives should be aware of their options and be able to confidently access and avail their choice of contraceptive with dignity and without shame.

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The author of this post, Nandini Mazumdar is the Programme Officer of the Abhaya project at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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