Women’s sexual and reproductive health is an important topic to us, so when we come across organizations and companies working to help women, girls and families, especially in unique and innovative ways, we are on board. In India, the topic of sexual and reproductive health is starting to get a lot more attention over the past few years, but it is still a long way off from being a nation whose women are empowering in the choices they make over their bodies, sadly.
According to the UN, India is home to the third largest number of people living with HIV in the world. Although numbers have slightly decreased in recent years, 2.1 million Indians accounted for about 4 out of 10 people infected with the deadly virus in the Asia—Pacific region at the end of 2013. The report stated HIV treatment coverage is only 36% in India, where 51% of AIDS—related deaths occur. Up to 64% of Indians do not have access to antiretroviral drugs and treatment.
On the reproductive health end of the scale, India is the world’s number 1 sterilizer of women, where mass “sterilization camps” have been known to provide unsafe and unsanitary procedures, often against the woman’s wishes. For a country with a population of 1.8 billion, the second largest in the world next to China (yet it is said to be overtaking China’s population by 2028) sterilization was at one point seen as the solution to curb population growth.
Between 2013-2014, more than 4 million women underwent sterilization, effectively making it the most common form of birth control. However, between 2003 and 2012, more than 1400 women died from the procedure performed at a state-run sterilization camp. This is horrific! Male sterilization isn’t as common, because it isn’t socially acceptable, of course.
This issue underscores the deeply patriarchal culture which puts men in a far more powerful social position, especially when it comes to autonomy over their body, than women. In 2016 the Supreme Court of India issued a ruling banning the camps, saying there needs to be a far more effective method of family planning which includes greater access to contraception and education around sexual health.
According to the Population Council, the Indian government opened more than 6000 health clinics across the country to improve reproductive and health services for men and women. But a study into the effectiveness have shown there is a reluctance, especially among young and non-married women to ask about their bodies, seek out resources and get the right information they need to be safe and healthy.
The study recommended that greater cultural sensitivity and comprehensive training on behalf of clinic workers was needed, in order to battle the social taboos and stigma around sexual health and mostly women’s bodily functions in such a conservative society.
At the same time, there has also been somewhat of a sexual awakening in India over the past few years, where sex shops and showrooms geared toward women and couples seeks to break through social stigma and empower customers with the right tools and knowledge to know they can enjoy sexual pleasure and stay healthy. Far from resorting to mass sterilizations and potential death, opening up conversations about sexuality can lead to far more effective ways to prevent STDs and HIV where sex toys and products that promote sexual pleasure are seen as important as greater access to birth control and contraception.
PRI reported on India’s “sexual awakening”, saying it is long overdue, but that attitudes still need to be fundamentally changed around sex.
“Just as crucial as making condoms available is changing people’s attitudes toward them. Here condoms carry connotations of casual or non-marital sex, so successive advertising campaigns have aimed to tackle embarrassment and promote condoms as a normal part of sexual health,” writes Chryselle D’Silva Dias.
“Outside of advertising, though, opportunities for young Indians to hear about sex are limited. The last time a progressive government attempted to introduce nationwide sex education in schools, in 2007, 12 of India’s 29 states rejected the program on the grounds that it was too explicit for ‘Indian culture.’ In 2014, the health minister suggested that the program be banned and replaced with compulsory yoga sessions. Today, sex ed courses remain a rarity in Indian schools,” she continued.
Enter female condoms. With the emphasis on feminism and female empowerment, there are a number of brands which are specifically catered to women in order to put the power back in their hands to protect themselves in sexual situations. One of the more well-known brands is Cupid Limited, who offer both male and female condoms.
Based in Nashik, they have been around since 1998 and today supply condoms and lubricant to over 26 countries around the world. They were also the first company in the world to obtain pre-qualification status from WHO/UNFPA for supply of both male and female condoms.
“Cupid ltd. works with healthcare professionals, governments and organizations to support them in promoting good sexual health and the importance of consistent condom use to prevent HIV and other STDs. Cupid has an important role to play to help the world play safe,” says a description on the website.
Cupid conducted a survey of more than 10,000 people and found 81% of participants believed female condoms can be a game-changer when it comes to making decisions about sexual experiences, as well as health and safety. The majority of participants, who were aged between 18-50, stated the condoms would be useful for preventing pregnancy and STDs, yet only a small number admitted they thought about using them purely for sexual pleasure.
There is a huge problem when we see a disconnect between wanting to talk about sexual pleasure and the notion that people do, in fact, have sex. If it is OK to talk about preventing diseases and unintended pregnancies, there should be a much more open discussion about sexual pleasure which could open up greater dialog around female empowerment and dismantle harmful gender stereotypes.
“We are delighted to present our new product to the consumers directly. Based on research and surveys, our team has played an instrumental role in creating awareness and identifying a potential marketplace for Cupid Female Condom. Our Product will significantly contribute towards women empowerment and wellness in the country,” Om Garg, chairman of Cupid Limited, said in a media release, as shared by IB Times.
Sexual and reproductive health is vital to a thriving community and prosperous families, but it will take a multi-pronged approach to break down social barriers that prevent gender equality. India has a long way to go, but with companies like Cupid Limited infiltrating the contraception market and seeking to empower women specifically, this could potentially be a tipping point for the country.
Curious as to how the female condom works? Watch the video below: