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Gynaecologists are doctors, not nannies

In India, the intersection between morality and medicine can make a visit to the gynaecologist harrowing for unmarried women

columns Updated: Jul 15, 2017 07:44 IST
Most women, married or not, will only see a gynecologist when they are pregnant -- or trying to be. For most – even those with the means to healthcare -- the idea of a routine checkup or health screening is alien. (Photo for representational purposes only)
Most women, married or not, will only see a gynecologist when they are pregnant -- or trying to be. For most – even those with the means to healthcare -- the idea of a routine checkup or health screening is alien. (Photo for representational purposes only)(Shutterstock)

She panicked when she thought she might be pregnant. She couldn’t tell her parents; had heard horror stories about doctors. “I was too scared to even buy a DIY pregnancy kit,” says the unmarried, final year college student. Those harrowing days were finally dispelled with the arrival of a late period.

Not every story ends so happily. In a country where sex is taboo and virginity is prized, unmarried women who have to visit the gynecologist often end up receiving large lashings of judgment.

Are you married? Are you having sex with your boyfriend? Do your parents know? Beta, girls from good families don’t do these wrong things.

Sometimes it isn’t even about sex but ‘protecting’ virginity.

Gayathri, who asks that I use only her first name, talks of going to a posh Delhi hospital for an invasive vaginal examination for a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome and being ‘advised’ by the lab technician to opt for just a superficial examination. The technician was worried that the invasive test could rupture her hymen. “He was trying to be nice,” she says wryly.

In a country where sex education is practically absent and parents are loathe to have that conversation with their children, the result of a disapproving encounter between patient and medical professional is not humiliation so much as the patient’s health.

Most women, married or not, will only see a gynecologist when they are pregnant -- or trying to be. Our bodies, vessels for delivering new generations of babies, are deemed worthy of a trip to the doctor only when we’re fulfilling our roles as mothers. For most – even those with the means to healthcare -- the idea of a routine checkup or health screening is alien.

Yet, India has 132,000 new cases of cervical cancer a year and WHO estimates that by 2020, 1.24 lakh women will be affected by breast cancer. Can we really afford to be squeamish?

“If you’re young, you’re shamed for having sex. If you’re older, you’re shamed for not having kids,” says Paromita Vohra, film-maker, writer and founder of Agents of Ishq that aims to create positive conversations about sex, love and desire.

There are exceptions. A crowd-sourced list maintained by Delhi-based activist Amba Azaad has a directory of trustworthy, non-judgmental gynaecologists.

Elsewhere, Haiyya, an NGO has an on-ground campaign and online petition for the right to safe medical services for everyone, regardless of marital status.

The next step, says campaign manager Mrinalini Dayal: getting doctors to agree to various ‘commandments’ including respecting patient confidentiality and treating adult unmarried women as capable of making informed decisions about their bodies.

It is not an unreasonable demand. Doctors need to be reminded they are medical practitioners, not the moral police.

(Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender. The views expressed are personal.)