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Sharon Lobo

IWB Blogger

Social Entrepreneur Swarnima Believes That Connecting Women With Each Other Can Create A Health Line

  • IWB Post
  •  October 12, 2017

Swarnima Bhattacharya started as a development professional, doing research and writing on gender, health, and housing. Her primary aim was to re-imagine cities through a feminist lens.

A Girl Icon Mentor with Milaan Foundation, she mentors young women in rural spaces about sexual and reproductive health and describes the experience as the happiest days of her life.

Some time back, she started Women’s Health Line, a platform that aims to dismantle the culture of silence around women’s health and their bodies by creating awareness and fostering healthy conversations. She seeks to bring about a change with a range of ingenious products and services for women’s health and body care. Being a multitasker, her take on the most causal topics is relatively different and offers a fresh perspective on everything.

Tell us more about Women’s Health Line.

The reason we started doing this helpline is to fuse the experiences we had had personally. Women sometimes don’t even talk about menstruation to men; no matter how educated the man is he has no clue what it is that happens during a period. I personally felt very uncomfortable. And, it is essential for women to get to talk about it openly. Boyfriends/Husbands know their Girlfriend/Wife’s waxing routines but nothing about their menstrual cycles. This realization made me conceptualize a platform that tries to help women in various ways about their health.

What content are you focusing on?

The primary aspect was to deliver scientifically verified content. Further, we focus on building a community where women can get together and talk about their health issues, ask questions and get help to understand things they don’t.

Around the world, the women’s health market is filled with Beauty & Wellness products like ‘breast warming butter,’ these products sound ridiculous from a scientific point of view, but people are still buying these products because this is the marketing and mindset. We want to support the few organizations that try to bring the products that focus on health into the market, like period panties, pee buddy, etc. We will help them by writing about them and promoting them. We want to tell women that taking care of their body is beyond just the skinny figure or fair skin.

You recently did research on Men who are willing to discuss sensitive topics, what kind of response did you receive from them?

This is an on-going research, the idea again is to basically normalize talking about “women’s issues.” Recently a filmmaker got acquitted off a rape charge, even when there was evidence, the Supreme Court said that the girl was dressed inappropriately, it came as a shock to many. It makes me question, what do men think rape is? Many people don’t know what a marital-rape is; the idea itself is alien to men, and I don’t blame them. It is inbuilt in our culture that women should always be aware and question themselves, but men are never held accountable.

You think educating society would bring about a change?

I just want to do an unbiased research, where I include men, give them scenarios and ask them what they think rape is, what they think qualifies as sexual harassment, what do they understand about consent, etc. The response has been better than what I expected. Many men and women reached out to me, and they said they want to talk about these issues.

For me, that was a very positive sign because the biggest challenge that women face while doing any gender-related work is that people already have their own mindset and the work is then disregarded.

What are the predominant health and body related issues women have?

The biggest problem is that women don’t really know what the problem is. When they talk about cramps, everyone has cramps, and no one talks about it, and we are told it is normal. What no one discusses that there are some conditions where the only symptoms are menstrual cramps or the color of the period blood, etc. It is so normalized that we are not aware of these symptoms. These are the things to be discussed in open, but instead, women are told that they shouldn’t complain.

How do you encourage women to conduct regular visits to gyno?

The problem is that going to a gynecologist is also a huge deal. There is data from research conducted by hospitals like AIMMS, Apollo, etc. saying that nearly 7 million women are dying due to PCOD that isn’t even diagnosed in their lifetime. So this a huge barrier that women don’t know they are supposed to ask for help.

Another issue is for unmarried sexually active women who go to a gynecologist, and they say that it will all get better after they get married, or everything will be alright once she has children and before that, she is just supposed to deal with the pain. Gynecologists are not very welcoming, they have a very judgmental behavior. Conditions like Polycystic Ovary Disorder or Syndrome (PCOD/PCOS) are the most popular diseases women are going through today; almost everyone has it but it isn’t diagnosed for a lot of people due to the lack of awareness.

Tell us about your role in the Milan Foundation.

Milan Foundation is a grass-roots organization that is connecting people who are doing some exciting work in their life with young girls who cannot finish their education due to financial problems. We mentor them, understand their challenges and help them continue to study. A lot of women in Rural areas teach stitching and embroidery, so even if they can’t get a formal education, they can gain skill-based education and work. We give them opportunities and mentor them over a period of two years. Currently, I am tutoring 5 girls at the moment. After two years we can choose whether we can continue with the relationship. It is the most humbling and eye-opening experiences I have had so far. I am very sure that my relationship with my mentee is based on pure trust, and this bond will continue even after the two years.

What challenges do you come across while training young women?

It is not just about training, it is more about understanding their background and their lives. We try to give them a detailed solution that suits their lifestyle. Whenever we talk about empowerment or growth, it is a very unrealistic mindset, a lot of times people are just negotiating with the reality of their lives and doing the best that they can. These girls that I am talking about, I am inspired by them. They have no opportunities or facilities, but their dreams and their confidence and hope that the life that their children will lead will be better than theirs is empowering.

So more than the training, it is about creating an empathetic relationship with the girls, giving them the options & guiding them and setting the stage for financial stability. Girls like them want to grow, but the most significant challenges are the families who don’t understand their ambitions. Telling the family that it is good that the girls are trying to do something for themselves is really difficult.

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What are the health problems that can be overcome through simple awareness?

I believe that awareness alone can solve 50% of the problems that women face. People don’t even know what the basic causes are for PCOD. We need to talk about it with our doctors and other women who may have similar issues. This has a massive impact on their lifestyles like conception and childbirth. If women are connected with other women, with similar problems and of similar age, lifestyle, etc.; they will know there is someone out there to listen to her, they will get the mental validation. Thus, awareness is a much-needed step forward.

We also see how post-birth all the attention is mostly given to the baby and the mother’s needs are ignored.

“The mother has to be healthy for the child to be healthy,” that is the mentality pregnant women even in urban areas face. The pain women go through is imaginable. Hygiene issues, vaginal tears, infection, etc. are mostly ignored post-pregnancy.

I know you are a big believer in self-empowerment through self-care. How do you achieve self-care in your personal life?

I spend some alone time. I enjoy watching movies alone too. A lot of people don’t understand it, but I really like it, because sometimes it is essential for a person to feel their presence and their body and laugh without any company. I am an avid reader, so these are the two things that I do. Also, I try to do some breathing exercises, that helps to get some clarity in your head.

She left me with a nugget of wisdom by saying, “The most important thing according to me is that women can help each other; a lot of happiness and peace in my life has come from women around me, be it from my mother, my best friend or my colleagues. I believe that talking and connecting with women is just very comforting.”

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