Inclusive Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: A Roundtable with Orinam || @chennaipride @Archytypes @Fred_Rogerss

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On the 2nd of September, 2022, Prajnya and Orinam organised a Roundtable on Inclusive Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. The roundtable was a part of a research internship undertaken by the author, Meghna, a postgraduate student of Sustainable Development Practice at TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. Through the research project, Meghna aims to explore concepts of accessibility and inclusivity to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Tamil Nadu. Through this, the roundtable not only shed light on the structural violence and discrimination in the healthcare sector against individuals who do not conform to the binary sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions, but also helped provide critical points in order to reimagine gender-affirmative healthcare. The session was moderated by Dr. L. Ramakrishnan and had on the panel – Fred, Dr. Prabha Swaminathan and Archanaa Seker, who gave us their insights on the theme of the roundtable

1. Fred works as an LGBTQIAP+ affirmative counsellor.

2. Dr. Prabha Swaminathan is a gynaecologist associated with Dr. Rela Institute & Medical Centre, Chennai and Chettinad Hospitals, Chennai. She is committed to providing gender-inclusive healthcare, as well as healthcare and support services for survivors of domestic violence. She has been working with NGOs for domestic violence and intimate partner violence and is also trained and certified as a workplace sexual harassment Internal Committee member.

3. Archanaa Seker is a writer, researcher and feminist rights activist based in Chennai. She works with the queer community and independently works on enabling access to Emergency Contraceptive Pills and abortions to those who need it and reach out. She also engages with state agencies to fill the gaps in SRHR. 

4. The session was moderated by Dr. L. Ramakrishnan who is a public health professional, associated with Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII). He works towards inclusive access to healthcare, justice and social protection for communities marginalized on account of gender, sexuality and/or HIV status.

The roundtable began with the panellists being asked what it means to them to be an inclusive SRHR provider. Archanaa began by answering that she has been working on enabling access to Emergency Contraceptive Pills for anyone who needs them for around a decade. “If access to contraception was inclusive and it could be accessed by everybody, there wouldn’t be a need for somebody like me. If you ask me what it is to have inclusive and accessible SRHR, I would say, the dream is I become redundant, or what I do becomes redundant.”, she said. Archanaa also added that despite ECPs not being illegal for sale or purchase in Tamil Nadu, the fact that they are not easily available is a result of confusion in the state, particularly one that involves Government agencies, pharmaceutical associations and pharmacies. 

“While I want ECP to be available at pharmacies just like we can buy a crocin or a Dolo-650 just off the counter, and I want every pharmacist to be able to give it without asking any questions, I do realise, they can’t stop at just making the pill available without looking at usage, over usage or misusage. And from a feminist point of view, I think we must think and talk about it,” she said.

Moving beyond assumptions of the cis-binary heterosexual contexts, there are barriers that are persistent for community members. Giving insights into this, Fred mentioned that organisations like Orinam that offer resources for gender-affirmative healthcare are essential for community members. Inclusivity, Fred said, to him, meant that “people in medical professions must be aware of gender identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations for the LGBTQ+ community to visit them when there is a need”. This makes it imperative to note that healthcare providers must take cognisance of the fact that bodies can come in many configurations which may or may not align with the individual’s gender identity. Dr Prabha Swaminathan added to the discussion by saying that she, an OB-GYN, recognises that medical professionals have to be mindful and considerate if there are vulnerable individuals seeking support. She said, no one should be left behind as far as health is concerned so that everyone has equal access and ability to get help.”

Furthermore, during the roundtable, discussing the barriers to accessing SRHR, Archanaa mentioned that the society is still stuck with very strict gender norms, including those that limit, prohibit or silence any discussion of  ‘pleasurable sex’. Accessing SRHR can be destigmatised only if the shame is taken away from bodies, body parts and sex itself. 

Archanaa also spoke about the reaction in India to the Roe v/s Wade judgement being overturned in the United States. While many people contrasted India’s seemingly progressive abortion laws with the rollback of reproductive rights in the US, Archanaa pointed out that the ground reality in terms of access to safe abortion services is fraught in the country. She directed the audience to the Guardian article, Feminists in India applaud their abortion rights – but they don’t extend to Dalit women by Shreeja Rao.

The roundtable also brought forth the question of how the medical sciences traditionally does not maintain any distinction between biological sex and gender, and thereby fails to address the issues of transmasculine individuals. Here, Fred mentioned that there is apprehension about opening up about one’s gender identity, especially to medical practitioners. Added to this is the toxic masculinity that is prevalent in the LGBTQIA+ community. These notions and stereotypes about the sexual orientations of transmasculine individuals is also reflected by medical practitioners who are supposedly gender-affirmative.

The concluding thoughts of the roundtable had Dr. Prabha Swaminathan talk about the aspects of abortion in the medical fraternity where one is always taught to deny abortion the first time, and to be pro-life. Concepts of gender beyond the binary, and identities on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum are also not considered normal in the medical profession. She mentions that very little time is given to develop a proper understanding of sexuality in the medical curriculum. It is the lack of this that has made most gynaecologists not understand sex and sexuality. For this, children must be taught from a very young age about sex and sexuality through sex education in schools. This thought was echoed by Fred as well. Fred also brought to light that legislation and policies must focus on making use of language that is inclusive of all identities. A brilliant Twitter thread was also suggested by Archanaa on the same which can be found here. Additionally, Archanaa supplemented this discussion by adding that it is essential for both medical professionals and institutions such as the state to move towards approaching sexual and reproductive health from a feminist and rights-based perspective.

Women’s History Roundtable: Anitha S.: “Be our voice” (March 9, 2013)

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Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Ms Anitha S. has spent a considerable amount of time in Idinthakarai, the village which plays home to the struggle against the establishment of the nuclear power plant in Koodankulam. She told us that even though the media only picked up the struggle against ‘KK’ recently, the protest has been ongoing since 1988. The movement was started by the National Fishworkers’ Federation, as the proposed site for KK was a violation of an integral part of the coastal zone.

On September 9th and 10th, 2012, the police lathi charged a group of peaceful protesters from Idinthakarai, after which the village came into the news. The villagers had undertaken a sathyagraha march from their village to the power plant. In addition to lathi charges, the police resorted to outdated methods of suppressions including tear gas. Even after this incident, no official representative of the government visited Idinthakarai to explain the situation to the community.

Ms Anitha herself came into contact with the movement through Mr SP Udayakumar. She is a marine biologist, and noted that the Gulf of Mannar (100 km away from KK) is a bioreserve.

Ms Anitha told us that the bulk of the protesters are women, as are a number of the leaders. These women are able to lead the movement effectively, and Ms Anitha feels that this is a consequence of their extraordinary ability to communicate and listen actively.

These women leaders of the movement have five basic concerns:

  1. What would be the impact of the power plant on the health of women and children?
  2. What would be the impact of KK on the ocean, soil and air?
  3. How would it affect the livelihoods of the local community (mostly fisherfolk)?
  4. In geological terms, how safe is the area from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, etc?
  5. What are the inter-governmental agreements signed by India with Russia? Especially since Russia has refused to ratify the liability clause of the agreement.

Studies by private groups have shown that there is likely to be a negative impact on all these areas.

The protesters have also demanded that the government provides written assurance that the energy produced by KK will be used exclusively for civilian power needs. The government of India has refused to provide this assurance, as these documents are ‘secret’ and under the direct purview of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The struggle took on a new phase after the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, with more media coverage. Post-Fukushima, various international bodies have imposed more stringent guidelines to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants. There are 17 conditions, and KK currently fulfills 6 of them. The Government has announced that in 2 years, all 17 will be fulfilled. However, they don’t seem to have a plan for the interim period.

There have been a number of disturbing incidents during the testing phase in KK. In March 2012, trial runs held in the plant produced sounds loud enough to be heard by the surrounding villages.

As per national standards, there should be a radius of 16 km around a nuclear power plant within which no habitation is permitted. However, at KK, the nearest house in 500 metres away from the walls of the power plant. These houses were a part of the rehabilitation settlements built after the tsunami in 2004 – which raises the issue of the seismological safety of the area.

The Atomic Energy Minister has predicted that by 2025, 25% of the country’s energy needs can be met by nuclear power. However, in order for this to be achieved, there needs to be a power plant at 25 km intervals along the coastline.

Ms Anithapointed out that if the government accedes to the protesters’ demands to shut down KK, they might have to do the same in other nuclear power plants across the country. Additionally, India stands to lose an enormous amount of money if we pull out of various deals to import Uranium from other countries.

Currently, Idinthakarai is in a state of constant and systematic protests involving hunger strikes, dharnas, awareness-raising meetings around the country, etc.

Ms Anitha emphasized the social change which has come about as a result of the protest. Women have emerged as leaders in the area, caste barriers are broken, conflict between the Church and the Temple no longer exists; all this has contributed to create a homogenized society in Idinthakarai.

Women’s History Roundtable: Sarada Ramani: “Women in the IT Sector: Trends, Challenges, Opportunities”

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Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

October 13, 2012: RoundTable Seminar: Sarada Ramani

Women in the IT Sector: Trends, Challenges, Opportunities

Ms Ramani began her seminar on Women and the IT Sector with a short history of the evolution of the computer industry. She took us through Pascal’s adding machine, Babbage’s Differential Machine, IBM and Apple.

Ms Ramani pointed out a few highlights in the evolution of computers in which women played a significant role. The first woman programmer was Ada Lovelace, who was an analyst working on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1842. The next documented step taken by women in the world of computer programming came nearly a century later, when American women worked on ballistics calculations during World War Two. In 1943, the wives of scientists at Los Alamos computerized the Manhattan Project. In 1946, a team of women were part of the original team behind ENIAC, the first electronic general purpose computer. Later in 1949, Grace Hopper invented the root language of COBOL, which is still used in some programs. In 1962, Jean Sammet became the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery. Mary Allen Wilkes became the first person to use a personal computer in 1965. Also in 1965, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first woman to complete a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

The Indian IT industry came into existence in the 1960s, when India acquired computers from the (then) USSR. In 1968, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) came into existence. In 1975, the National Informatics Centre was established. In 1976, the Computer Maintenance Corporation (CMC) was formed. In a bid to indigenize computer products, CMC acquired all the machines from IBM after IBM pulled out of India in 1978. 1986 saw the creation of the Wide Area Network. In 1991, the Ministry of Electronics was set up (currently the Ministry of Information and Communications). During the same year, STPIs (Software Technology Parks of India) was set up. STPI meant that an organization could have an office without a physical space. The first e-mail server, VSNL, was set up in 1991. The National Telecomm Policy was formulated in 1999. In 1998, the IT industry comprised 1.2% of the GDP, and 4% of exports. These figures have increased significantly over the next 15 years. In 2012, the IT industry comprised 7.5% of the GDP and 25% of exports.

Coming to the presence of women in IT today, Ms Ramani pointed out that women generally score higher on the 16 competencies exemplified in leaders. In spite of this, there is still a significant gender gap in leadership positions in the IT world. Only 4.9% of all board directors are women. Only 22.6% of people employed in IT organizations are women, and women make up 36% of the organized labour force. These figures are reflected in the IT industry as well, where there still exists a large gender gap. It should be noted that at the entry level, 72% of employees are women; but at the top of the pyramid, only 7% of top management comprises of women.

Ms Ramani then told us a little about eWIT – an organization of women in IT. It is a platform to facilitate the interchange of ideas and provide a voice for women in the IT industry. eWIT works to increase the percentage of women in the IT industry, and improve the movement of women from lower to higher levels in the organization. It is a 7 year old NGO, and was formed by women in the industry.

eWIT works in many areas, including research and consulting, networking and academic initiatives. As part of their work in research and consulting, eWIT partners with the Computer Society of India (CSI) to conduct various programs highlighting the roles of various stakeholders in the IT industry. eWIT also does research on leadership and women, and the changes which are required for women to access leadership roles. They also consult with large corporate organizations to identify best practices to understand and mitigate problems faced by women in the workplace.

Networking serves to increase the sustainability of the workforce, and understand why women tend to leave jobs. eWIT has launched the Role Model series, in which women in senior positions talk about the challenges that they face and how they move forward. eWIT also holds panel discussions about various topics related to women and the workplace.

eWIT also runs 2 programs a year in colleges to impart entrepreneurship and employability skills to college students.

Ms Ramani concluded the discussion with a list of Best Practices which should be implemented in all organizations in order to encourage an increased percentage of women in the workforce.