Daan Utsav: Changing Mindsets About Sexual And Reproductive Health
This #DaanUtsav, BloombergQuint brings you a series of NGO startup stories, on how organisations across India are bringing about significant transformation, and are looking to scale up. These startups are participating in ‘Dolphin Tank’, a ‘Shark Tank’ format event with pitches made to #LivingMyPromise’s ‘dolphin’ signatories, for their support.
Coming from a typical Kolkata Bengali middle-class family, my life has been privileged in many spaces. But that does not mean the whole of it has been easy. I lost my father at an early age and this led the three of us (maa, my brother, and I) to come together as a unit and rebuild our relationship of sorts. I completed my schooling with flying colours, and I knew my calling already. I took up sociology in my graduation at Presidency College (now, University) followed by a master’s from the University of Hyderabad. Getting through these institutes was life-changing. I met people from all over the country, learned to adult officially.
Adolescence and young adulthood are beautiful times, you make new friends, develop your worldview, engage and sometimes thrive in new spaces, make mistakes and learn from them. Like all of my peers, I was also in a relationship and exploring intimacy. While it may feel liberating to embrace these experiences, but without knowledge and support, it might be challenging in many ways.
Nobody told me that condoms were not just meant to prevent pregnancy, nobody told me what an average menstrual cycle looks like, I did not understand what consent looks like in the truest sense and while I was still grappling with these, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. I was 19 then. Not that I do not have it anymore, but today I have more information about it.
It took me a lot of courage to land up at a doctor’s chamber because I heard from my peers how they have been shamed by medical professionals for their sexuality and how they insist on having a parent around. My mother has been a cool parent in many spaces, but patriarchy is deeply ingrained in our conditioning, and it expects young women to not ever take charge of their bodies or sexuality. So, the doctor ran a few tests and prescribed medicines and could never answer any of my questions. I paused the treatment a few months after because the pills did not suit me. I decided to never go back to that chamber. Six years later I was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst, and I had to undergo laparoscopy surgery.
After the surgery, as I was recovering, I developed a tendency of acquiring frequent urinary tract infections after my periods. This went on over a few years, and I was given medicines to manage it every time it flared up.
Professionally I was doing well otherwise but I always felt something was amiss. In my few years of work, I had also been subjected to sexual harassment at workplace and I never found the vocabulary or the guts to confront the harassers. Back then, I did not even know my rights as a victim.
My experiences with harassment, feeling of powerlessness and physical challenges made me deeply question all my life choices. Something changed in me, and it culminated in me leaving my full-time job and focussing on consulting on gender, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. I decided to upskill myself by attending courses, institutes, and workshops to develop perspectives and focussed on healing. Amidst all this, I had worked in three states: West Bengal, Bihar, and Maharashtra. I decided to move back to my city and work with other CBOs to share my experience and learn from them.
As I spoke to more people, I realised my story was so many other people’s stories.
I learnt about menstrual health advocacy, discovered my bodily autonomy, and also switched to alternative sustainable menstrual products which stopped my urinary tract infections from visiting me again.
I started developing and designing programs around menstrual health and advocacy and that was another time I realised that how deeply it is associated with gender rights. In my workshops, I met women and girls who did not know that the vaginal opening and urethral opening were different places and when I wear a menstrual cup, peeing in not an issue at all because they are different openings. The lack of knowledge about our bodies stems from the constant shaming and stigmatisation of even talking about reproductive anatomy.
Since childhood, we are not given the vocabulary to call our vulva as vulva. It is always masked with phrases like ‘private’ parts or some weird euphemisms. Mind you, this happened with all of us regardless of sex.
All of this pushed me into starting Rangeen Khidki – an organisation that was led by young people and meant to work for young people on sexual and reproductive health and rights using the gender equity lens. We started out with just me working full time for this in early 2020. It was difficult, to begin with. No funding, no office, no team members, and as if these were not enough, we were hit by a global pandemic. But the passion to work in this space kept me going. Crowdfunding and some other sources of capital kept us going in the pandemic. Slowly we had volunteers joining us, and today we are stronger than ever. We started getting opportunities to do our work sporadically and slowly started getting recognition.
In September 2020, we were selected for the Changelooms Leadership and Learning Journey with Pravah and there has been no looking back since then. This journey helped in developing our organisational structure, identify our strengths, and supported us in creating more impact. CLL helped us find our loudest cheerleaders and mentors.
In the last year, Rangeen Khidki has grown beyond what I expected. We have conducted multiple workshops on gender, sexuality, menstrual health, comprehensive sexuality education in more than six states in India with over 25 partners (CBOs and government departments) and 350+ parents/educators and reached close to 30,000 individuals through all our programs combined.
An organisation like ours, which works with topics that are prey to taboo and stigma, faces a lot of challenges.
For example, the dearth of funding in this space, lack of enough research, stigma, and shame in the community, etc often work together and also individually to create obstacles for us. We are sometimes thrown out of communities; not receive any response from schools or institutes; not find enough funding to hire professionals; but that has not deterred us. I believe in what I am doing, and I am constantly working on doing things better. There are a lot of plans in the pipeline and I am sure that given the hard work that my team and I put, will continue to have a 10x impact on the lives of adolescents and young people in some way. After all, we are all just aspiring to create a dent in the universe.
Sanjina Gupta is Founder and Executive Director of Rangeen Khidki Foundation, a sexual and reproductive health rights consultant and trained menstrual health facilitator.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.