Nearly 40 percent of female suicides in the world happen in India.
More than half of Indian women are anaemic.
India also have the infamous distinction of having the highest cases of cervical cancer in the world.
Couple that to the rising cases of breast cancer, fertility challenges and menstrual health problems, and there is undoubtedly a lot of work to be done for women’s health. For women’s health advocates, it is easy to feel frustrated at the dire statistics.
However, as we pause and reflect, we will find some crucial developments which have moved the needle for women’s health by several inches, and these are wins we can continue to build on.
Here are 5 big wins which have the capacity to change systems and mindsets for women’s health in India.
Supreme Court's Decision On Medical Termination Of Pregnancy
In a phenomenal judgment, the Supreme Court ruled on 29 September that single and unmarried women with pregnancies between 20 and 24 weeks are entitled to access the same safe and legal abortion care as married women.
A Bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud interpreted the rules framed under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 to derive a conclusion.
It said, 'the rights of reproductive autonomy, dignity and privacy give an unmarried woman the right of choice as to whether or not to bear a child on a similar footing as that of a married woman.'
The order came on a petition brought to the top court in July by a 25-year-old single woman who had been in a consensual relationship and was 22 weeks pregnant. The ruling is indeed a progressive one in a country that is home to 73 million single women.
The way forward:
What is significant is that the apex court also addressed marital rape and child sexual abuse within the confines of this law. Despite the imperfections, the judgment opens up more dialogue for legal precedents for women’s autonomy.
Menstrual Health: Rise Of Coalitions And Informal Networks
There has been a boom in menstrual health activism in India for the past few years, and we can see an active role played by coalitions such as MHAi (formerly known as Menstrual Health Alliance India) which is a network of NGOs, manufacturers and other experts that works to create awareness about menstrual health.
MHAi has been instrumental in advocating for and working with the Bureau of Indian Standards to update the standards of sanitary pads.
Apart from MHAi, there are small and mid-sized networks of which are organized as WhatsApp or as Facebook groups that have been active and are helping various stakeholders collaborate better.
The way forward:
Such networks not only amplify and mutually strengthen the work of grassroots advocates, but also expand the scope of menstrual health activism to cover even more taboo topics like menopause, menstruation and disability, menstrual health in conflict zones and displaced communities, and much more.
Such networks and coalitions also need investment and various government departments can explore to work jointly with such formal and informal networks.
Femtech Sector Developments
The digital future of women’s health is bright, because a number of women are finally making technology that is inclusive, and empowers women with data and tools to care for their own health.
The Asia Pacific femtech market is expected to progress with a compounded growth rate of 13 percent over the forecasting years leading to 2028. This is significant for a region where internet penetration among women is also not promising. Companies like Niramai are making early diagnosis of breast cancer easier, whereas others like Care Mother are speeding up last mile delivery of maternal healthcare.
The way forward:
Despite investor skepticism, there is a wave of women demanding better healthcare, personalised services and a data-driven approach to understanding their own bodies. Femtech is here to make that happen, by framing women’s health as an investable opportunity.
HPV Vaccine Roll Out
Although 16 percent of the world's women live in India, the country, unfortunately, experiences a disproportionately high burden of cervical cancer, accounting for approximately 25 percent of global cases and almost 33 percent of cervical cancer deaths.
However, there was a positive step taken in 2017 when a technical expert group approved the inclusion of the vaccine against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), one of the most common causes of cervical cancer, in the Universal Immunisation Programme.
While it has not yet been adopted nationwide, this approval is a promising development.
The way forward:
While vaccination is important we must also emphasise a lack of awareness and stigma about conversations on the 'vagina', which may limit uptake by women and also give a misplaced signalling around sexual activity which is frowned upon.
A campaign by HPV #DontGetCaughtByHPV targeting the urban youth is a good start. We need to fine tune the messaging now for semi-urban and rural women without overburdening the already underpaid ASHA workers.
Support Groups For Mothers, Breastfeeding Support Groups
The theme of Women’s Day 2023 is: DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality. Social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram becoming popular platforms connecting women going through roller-coaster experiences of motherhood.
Such groups act as social and emotional safe havens for pregnant women and new moms who have not only gone through bodily changes but have the responsibility of taking care of a new life.
We must acknowledge the societal pressure and challenges, such as mothers being shamed for breastfeeding their child in public.
Thus, Support groups in India such as — (Birth India, Breastfeeding Support For Indian Mothers, La Leche League support in India) not only help women find supportive peers but create spaces for advocacy for the physical and mental health rights of pregnant women and new mothers.
The way forward:
Digital platforms remain out of reach for many women. There must be an investment into gender-responsive 'digital poverty' alleviation programs. Building women's access to digital tools and improving their digital skills could also mean they can access digital platforms and tools addressing their health.
(Mayuri Bhattacharjee is a menstrual health educator and Climate Reality Leader from Assam. Swarnima Bhattacharya is the Chief Product Officer at Gytree – a platform for women's health. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)