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Lavanya Bahuguna


This Organisation Is Trying To Save Indian Women The ‘Moral Judgement’ Gynecologists Throw At Them

  • IWB Post
  •  September 7, 2017


It was in 2013 that a group of women decided to build a progressive and democratic power through community organizing framework. Inspired by the iconic worker cry of “Zor Lagake…Haiyya!,” they decided to name their then small group ‘Haiyya.’

“We were clear that the societal change can only take place as a community, but the voice and action of leadership are needed in order to spark collective action for change,” informs Aprajita Pandey, one of the founding members and Director at the Delhi-based NGO Haiyya.

We spoke to the strong-headed woman to understand more about the organization’s ground and online campaigns majorly focusing on everything that is socially/politically relevant in our country. Their recent and one of the most influential projects is about educating the Gynecologists on how not to push moral judgments and threaten the unmarried girls who visit them for check-ups.

Read the excerpts from the interview below:

Let’s begin by talking about how the founders came up with the idea and turned it into a reality.

We were community organizers, campaigners, social workers who were inspired by the work of Professor Marshall Ganz, rooted in 28 years of organizing experience, informed by insights from social science and teaching at Harvard Kennedy School and it’s incredible adaptation in Obama’s electoral campaign 2008 & 2012.Haiyya

Haiyya started its work in Mumbai and Delhi by running local level campaigns on pressing civic and social issues, training more change- makers in the organizing framework through Fellowship programs and working with other reputed organizations to scale the on-ground impact and leadership. In two years, people associated with Haiyya found community-organizing approach profoundly transformational and powerful. We wanted to create more opportunities for people trained in this organizing framework to connect, share, collaborate, and ultimately grow the work. Piyali Thakur and I then formally registered Haiyya as a Section 8 non-profit company in 2015.

Is it an all-women team?

It is not an all-women team, but we definitely aim to encourage and hire more women for leadership positions and roles. We have mixed staffs and volunteers who work with us.

Share a little about your advisors – how did you meet and convince them to be a valuable part of your mission?

Professor Marshall Ganz from Harvard Kennedy School of Government is our advisor. Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He teaches, researches, and writes on leadership, organization, and strategy in social movements, civic associations, and politics. He got his start in organizing with Cesar Chavez on the staff of the United Farm Workers and worked there for sixteen years before becoming a trainer and organizer for political campaigns, unions and nonprofit groups. He is credited with devising the successful grassroots-organizing model and training for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. We got to learn about his work as we were following President Obama’s presidential election in 2012.

One of our advisors Shivani Kumar has been his student at Kennedy School who introduced us to his framework and him. I personally met Professor Ganz in early 2015 in one of the conferences in Serbia where we discussed scaffolding Haiyya’s work to cultivate civic leadership in India. Since then Professor Ganz, his organization Leading Change Network has been advising us to build our work. Shivani is one of the most experienced and learned students of Professor Ganz and closely works with us in New Delhi to coach us through our campaigns and training.

Talk about your first ever training campaign. Also, how easy/difficult was it to approach people?

One of our first campaigns was Rise Up campaign in 2013 during Delhi State Assembly Elections. We conceptualized the grassroots campaign under the bigger umbrella of Tata Power of 49 campaigns and were working closely with Tata Jaago Re. The campaign’s aim was to spread the narrative of 49% of voters being women should go out and vote to influence political power shift. It was a field and training intense campaign where we trained more than 50 youth leaders across different constituencies of Delhi to build a relationship with the women in their local areas, sign them up for the campaign and persuade them to vote on the issues that matter to them as a woman voter.

The real challenge was in identifying right leaders who are ready and motivated to build a network of women in their local areas. We invested a lot of time in the strategic identification of youth leaders by going to the college campus, partnering with local like-minded organizations and tapping creative youth based networks. After the leaders had been identified, we created training modules that can equip them with the right set of skills to work on the ground. Our training helped them craft their personal story to connect with people on the issue, develop value based relationships to drive trust and commitment, scale their efforts by forming and managing local teams. It was challenging indeed as we were testing out these training modules for the very first time (which were adapted from President Obama’s Electoral Campaigning). However, in a span of 3 months, we had 50 trained youth leaders with us, with over 150 volunteers working on the ground to sign up more than 10,000 women to go out and vote.

What topics do you mostly voice for?

We are a multi-issue organization, and hence we don’t have any issue or theme priority. We ideate and run campaigns on the issue that we feel are socially/politically relevant and need attention. We also provide a platform for youth and women to start and lead their own campaigns (on the issue they/their community wants to act) through our innovative Fellowship programs (ex, TEDxDelhi Fellowship Program in 2016, Youth4Environment Fellowship program currently ongoing). We also consult other social impact driven organizations in running effective campaigns and community projects. So basically we stand up for anything that demands public mobilization, leadership, and action.

You believe in peaceful protests and holding compassionate dialogues. According to you, what are some of the subjects women should now courageously raise their voices against?

I believe every issue is a women’s issue because ALL issues affect women. National security affects women, climate change affects women, poor sanitation affects women, non-affordable health-care affects women, and taxation laws affect women. According to me, women are, will and should take more leadership on raising their voices against everything that affects them directly or indirectly. The idea is to address those issues that require loud voices on behalf of vulnerable people.

We came across your petition for women’s right to safe medical services. When did you decide to take the matter in your hands?

A woman close to the Haiyya Team shared her harrowing experience when she went to get an abortion and was called ‘irresponsible’ and shamed by the gynecologist. Her story made us all reflect on our own lives and whether we feel the need to visit a gynecologist and more importantly if we felt safe accessing an essential health service. The answer to our shock and disappointment was a resounding no, despite the fact that we are all independent working professionals. We did some research and realized that no one: not doctors, not policy makers nor lawyers – we’re talking about sexual health rights of unmarried women. We as a group of unmarried women had to use our voice and our stories to highlight this issue.

Did you happen to speak to more unmarried women who go through the ‘moral check-ups’ while visiting their gynecologist? What kinds of things are they told?

Through working on the campaign, we have heard stories from multiple women in New Delhi who go for doctor checkups that turn into moral lectures. Most times they are asked if they are married or not right at the beginning and that establishes the tone of the consultation as well as what it deemed ‘appropriate’ to discuss. Women, who breach topics about being sexually active through STI, pregnancy or abortion, are told they bring shame to their family, asked if their parents know they are sexually active and often exploited for more money.Haiyya

Many women who have PCOS have also been given the solution of ‘getting married’ to solve hormonal imbalance. Women who are around the age of 28 or older were shamed for not having children and nudges about their ‘biological clock’ ticking. We have also heard experiences of women who are outright denied services such as HIV tests or abortion services despite being over 18 years old. It was based on these stories that we build our ‘10 Commandments’ that we want gynecologists to commit to.

How has interacting with the gynecologists been so far?

We started meeting doctors in Delhi, and so far the reaction has been quite positive however many gynecologists are unable to fathom how deep the stigma actually is and deny judgment exists until we share the experiences of women we’ve spoken to so far. There are also those who put the entire onus on unmarried women claiming that we’re the ones who lie to the doctor. Not realizing that women are lying because they don’t view the clinic as a safe space. Fortunately, we have found many allies who believe in and see the need of our ‘10 Commandments’

Comment on the privacy issue of unmarried girls that should be guarded by her doctor.

Every doctor should respect their patients, and one of the most important facets of respect is the privacy of their personal and confidential information. The fear of information leaking is one of the most significant reasons that unmarried women don’t visit gynecologists or go to a clinic far away from their house that may provide unsafe services. In India, there is a huge emphasis placed on a woman’s virginity, and we are always judged by our sexual history. In this context, if a woman is not guaranteed privacy why and how will she ever share the correct information with the doctor.

After 50k people sign this petition, will you transform it into a ‘Code of Conduct’ that every Indian gynecologist will be obliged to follow?

We are currently at 45 k signatures and anticipate to get to 50k shortly. However, alongside we are focusing the campaign in New Delhi and our SRHR Defenders (campaign leaders) are meeting with Gynecologists on the ground and demanding commitments to our ‘10 Commandments.’ Once we have built enough of a base and support, we will look into pushing this on a larger scale -including hospitals, medical bodies, and the government.

We started this petition asking The Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) to send a directive to all its members to Protect Sexual Health Rights of Unmarried Women in India. FOGSI is the organization that represents 223 member societies and over 29,310 individual gynecologists and obstetricians spread across the country.

Are you also planning to conduct workshops for parents discussing the right of their girl child to being sexually active?

‘Health Over Stigma’ is using community meetings called ‘Vagina Dialogues’ to build a network of unmarried women who are: aware of the sexual health rights, have safe spaces to share their experiences and given relevant medical information. We believe that first women themselves need to come together and start talking about this issue openly and only then can we start to look at other ally groups such as parents and men. Just as on flights you are first advised to give yourself an oxygen mask then help others, that is our philosophy, as well.

Do you think that we also need to break the narrow perception of women visiting the gynecologist ONLY during their periods and pregnancy? We believe quarterly check-ups are a must, too.

Yes, of course! We need to follow a precautionary approach when it comes to going to the gynecologist. This also includes not just going when something is terrible when the infection has spread to an unbearable level. Even women who aren’t sexually active should visit the gynecologist to access services such as HPV Vaccinations, UTI’s, discharge and birth control. One day you may be sexually active, and it’s best to talk to your doctor before that moment so that you can understand the options available to you. Despite what many people believe talking about sex does not make women have sex instead it leads to safe sex. At the end of the way we need to protect ourselves and our bodies, it can only be done by putting our ‘Health Over Stigma.’

Sign Haiyya’s petition here if you second the thoughts of Aprajita. Also, check out Haiyya’s website here for more information.

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