Has Chennai’s theatre really opened its door for LGBTQIA+ issues?

July has been an exciting month for theatre enthusiasts in Chennai, leaving one spoilt for choice. With the Short and Sweet Theatre Festival, and several exciting plays happening in other parts of the city, it is indeed warming to see that the art of storytelling through the medium of theatre being received well.

It is a chance to transport the audience to another world for a few minutes, make them laugh, emote, sympathize, reflect on their choices, provide a visual treat, or convey some deep hitting tough messages. From the platter of diverse variety offered to you, there is something for everyone to love! The sheer diversity of themes, mode used to get across the concept will somehow find its way to strike that chord in your heart.

And I suddenly became aware of the responsibility when such a strong platform is used to convey a message. This is not from a critical perspective or a review of anything, but rather the general musings of a theatre lover. After all it is a reflection of life as it is or maybe the life we hope to see. I recently saw ‘The Birdcage’ at The Museum Theatre which is based on an American movie by the same name. It tells the story of a gay couple Armaan and his partner Alfie who own a drag nightclub in Chennai. They are forced to pretend to be a normal heterosexual couple when their son plans to marry and brings home his fiancé’s parents. Hysteric situational comedy ensues for the next 2 hours.

It is pretty bold to introduce the premise of a plot with a gay couple, having the plot revolve around their love, insecurities, quirks and the situational humour merely through two gay people who try to un-gay for a day. I have to admit that maybe a way for the society to become more progressive is to include the vastly (and conveniently) ignored LGBTQIA+ community into the mainstream entertainment. Maybe as more people include this in their work of art it might slowly sink in that ~2.5 Million people (and probably more) identify as LGBT and this in turn might make people more sensitive about the struggle it takes to live with a different sexuality in India.

On the other hand, it stings a little when the whole idea is reduced to a mere joke. Looking at a chubby effeminate man prancing around trying to walk and talk like a “real heterosexual man” makes the audience burst into peals of laughter. Of course, one might argue that certain humour has that inherent tinge of sadism – in the same way a person tripping down evokes laughter.

But when the struggles are very much real and leads to possible ostracization, is looking for tact and sensitivity too much to ask for? This raises a very interesting question on how to portray certain themes. Maybe the intentions could lean more towards pure entertainment and not much of a social message. Can we expect the mass audience who laughed at effeminate Alfie in the ‘situational comedy’ of the play to suddenly switch to a sensitive humane mode when we come across a real-life Alfie?

Though Chennai’s theatre has been open to LGBTQIA+ issues before, it took a different turn with this year’s Short and Sweet Theatre festival. My concerns were partly addressed by the Short and Sweet Theatre festival.  I saw a lot of these issues being tackled with the right mix of sensitivity, pain, humour, powerful and memorable performances. Some of my favourites being “Under the microscope” which was an expositional dialog on what it means to explore love and sexuality beyond what is accepted by evolution. This made us smile, reflect on the conversations and just stay with the characters while they eventually fall in love with each other. “Gunapathy” was one of the best performances I have seen till date where you empathize with the person who was physically separated from the body they should have been born with, when nobody wants to acknowledge his form instead attack him from all sides. “Naramugai – Aval Oru Aruveruppu” took us into the psyche of transgenders, the raw reality of their challenges in a way that moves you. “Man in Me” took us through the mental perils faced by a woman trapped in a man’s body and her journey of self-acceptance through dance. There were many more brilliant plays across various genres.

I am truly excited by the possibilities theatre as a medium has to create an impact alongside mainstream entertainment. The power of a story should not be undermined! With the last week to go, I can’t wait to see the other performances lined up. If you are yet to get into the world of theatre, you should catch the remaining few days of Short + Sweet festival in Chennai and see for yourself the magic of theatre!

Editor’s note: The writer of this piece chose to remain anonymous. However, since Hidden Pockets was in conversation with Short & Sweet Theatre festival to cover the LGBTQIA+ themed plays staged during the edition, we chose to use the images shared by the organisers. 

Pride 2017 Photo story: Chennai celebrates its LGBTQIA+ community

For the ninth year in a row, Chennai celebrated its LGBTQIA community with its Pride March on June 25, 2017. The Pride March began from the Rajarathnam stadium in Chennai. Below is a photo story of Chennai Pride 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#MenstrualHygieneDay Special: Period Paatu, a video on menstrual hygiene products

“Look at contraceptive pills, we are really not looking into the ill effects of these pills because women use them, same goes for menstruation products. Because women use it, it is not something that main stream media cares to discuss.” – Sofia Ashraf

Menstrual Hygiene Day is observed on May 28, annually. It is observed and not celebrated because there continues to be a certain lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene and so this day is observed with the intention of bringing about awareness, break taboos regarding menstruation, as well as educating women and young girls about good menstrual hygiene practices. Several interesting things happened in 2017 for Menstrual Hygiene Day. But one that caught our attention was Sofia Ashraf’s video on menstrual hygiene.

“Awareness about what goes inside or outside your virgina”- SofiAshraf, Sista from the South

After experimenting with several different menstrual products and experiencing each one individually Ashraf felt the need to educate a certain section of women who have access to menstrual products about the pros and cons of different products.

Ashraf explains, “I started off with pads and then moved onto tampons for functional reasons. When I moved on to tampons I started getting infection and so I approached a gynecologist and that’s when the gynecologist told me about the ill effects of tampons. Tampons have bleach and chemicals in them and they are not meant for India tropical climate so this led me to do a lot of research on menstrual products”

Ashraf undertook research for about a year, talking to people and getting to know more about menstrual products. Her research led her to find out a lot of information which she was unaware of.

Through the course of her research, she found out that sanitary pads are made of 90% plastic, moreover these pads take 600 to 800 years to decompose. Sanitary workers are compelled to take up these blood soaked pads with their bare hands which again lead to a lot of diseases. The amount of chemical used in tampons is again harmful to the body which can lead to vaginal infection.

“A lot of people are not talking about it because in this country talking about menstruation itself is such a taboo, talking about these other facets of menstruation is just completely under the table”

Ashraf works with a channel called Blush where she has started a show called “Sista from the South” which deals with a number of women related issues. She has previously worked on issues like body image and menstruation. The content of this channel, Ashraf claims, is content for women by women using humour and music to target issues that aren’t generally spoken about.

“Mainstream media is dominated by male writers, male directors to a point where a woman’s perspective is often ignored. So the whole point of Sista from the South is just to bring in a woman’s perspective into social media.” – Sofia Ashraf

Period Paatu: A video about choices

According to Ashraf, her latest video on the different menstrual products is a result of her research. While there are various issues regarding menstruation, Sofia aims to address one particular issue in this video. Her video talks about the pros and cons of specifically 3 menstrual products – pads, tampons and menstrual cups. The other menstrual products used are ignored intentionally as Ashraf says that her intention was not to address all the problems related to menstruation. She would like to deal with each problem individually. Her intention behind making a video in English and uploading it on YouTube is clear when she says that she only aims to address 2% of the Indian population who have access to an English education as well as YouTube. These are the people who can afford to buy products such as pads, tampons and menstrual cups. Her video tries to explain to women that while these products are easily available and affordable by them, they also need to know the side effects of these products to make an informed choice  about the type of product one is using.

There is a need for women to be well informed about the products that they are use during menstruation. Making informed decisions about the product one is using is a necessary step. However, there is also a need for manufactures to produce more biodegradable products and use a little less chemical while making these products. These are important issues that need to be looked at and discussed. Since these problems concern women, there is not much talk about it. Media also tends to ignore such issues because social media tends to be male centric. There is a certain taboo when it comes to speaking about menstruation and other women related issues.

Ashraf however claims to target only 2% of the India population through her YouTube video which she calls the privileged class. This class has access to menstrual products and it is necessary for them to understand the pros and cons of each menstrual product.

India however consists of a large number of women from different socio-economic backgrounds and each of these women face different problems regarding menstruation which has to be dealt with individually. Most women also suffer due to the stigma attached to menstruation as well as the inability to purchase these menstrual products.  This definitely calls for more voice. It would be definitely useful to think about different ways in which all the other issues related to menstrual hygiene may be discussed on all days and not just on Menstrual Hygiene Day.

About the writer:

Marian Dias is a sociology graduate who hopes to start teaching the subject someday soon. Apart from loving outdoor games like basket ball and cricket, she also loves to travel and visit new places.

Men Talk Consent workshop by Prajyna for young men in Chennai colleges

India is struggling to grasp the concept of consent. It may need more than just a little nudge to make people understand what consent means. Acknowledging the importance of consent to reduce and eventually prevent gender violence especially in relationships, Prajyna, a non-profit organisation working around gender related issues, is organizing its Men Talk Consent two-day workshop on April 29 and 30, 2017. The workshop will be addressing young men studying in colleges across Chennai. Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development, University of Guelph will be the facilitator of the workshop.

Consent is a conscious and unforced decision made by a woman to an offer to enter into a relationship or for sex with another human being, mostly men. It includes her decision to say Yes or No to invitations.

“Even if women doesn’t express a clear No or if they seem unsure or even confused in their exercise of consent, it still tantamount to a No and not a Yes from her”, explains Sudaroli Ramasamy, Programme Officer, Prajyna.

She elucidated on this point since a majority of Indian men take a woman’s hesitance or confusion or a lack of clear No as a Yes.

Apart from engaging the male students in a conversation on consent, this free workshop will also train the students to be facilitators of similar workshops among their peer group. The students attending this workshop will commit to conducting 5 such sessions among their peer group with one session having a minimum of 10 men.

Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, who has been working in the area of gender for the last 25 years underlines the importance of conducting such a workshop:

“The discourse around gender focuses a lot on women but I don’t think we engage with men enough; and more importantly, I also think, we don’t know how to engage with men. So I think it is about time (to have workshops and similar spaces wherein) men have healthy conversations around ending violence against women, gender discrimination and other gender related issues.”

But why a ‘Men only’ workshop

Previously, Prajyna had done a series of workshops called Conversation about Consent involving college students: both men and women.

  • These workshops emphasized the need to understand that lack of clarity is lack of consent.
  • Videos on consent were shown to the participants as part of these workshops.
  • Prajyna intends to take the above initiative of conducting workshops to the next level by training male student volunteers as facilitators of similar workshops among their peer group.
  • These workshops had mixed gender groups and it was noticed that men feel more comfortable when men talk about the Right to Consent of a woman thereby highlighting the need for gender- specific workshops; especially, Men- addressing- Men workshops.

Explaining the reason for training male facilitators to address men, Srinivasan says that there are certain things that men may not be comfortable talking to a woman about. The intent of enabling male facilitators is to create safe comfortable spaces for men to engage with.

“If you want a group of women to talk about domestic violence and all of it, and  if you put a bunch of men there, there are certain things that the women are not going to talk about. It is about just creating that respectful comfortable space where they can have this conversation among themselves. We have had mixed group conversations and those conversations will only go so far.”

Srinivasan adds that it would be hard for women to think that they can do these sessions with men around.

“There are some no-go zones and I think it is best that men have these conversations among themselves. There is a certain idea associated with it in their minds. It is not the case with all. But if men talk about it, it will be that their own gender is talking about it and they will hear what the facilitator says. It is comfort zone for them to freely discuss things without any blocks.”

But what have been the problems with women addressing men about the issue of consent? Though Srinivasan emphasis on the lack of any problem or the need or lack for a safe space, she underlines the fact that we are not in a situation where men and women can sit down and talk about these issues yet. She points to the unintentional yet quick tendency to polarize: among men and women; as the reason for the need for gender-specific workshops male facilitators. In the case of men,it was largely found: this polarization often discourages many men from sharing their concerns and questions due to the stigma of being labeled as anti-women.

“This is exactly why it is good and important for men to think that gender related issues including gender violence is not solely a women’s problem and that men have a lot to address among themselves and these conversations need to happen a lot more.”

Hence Prajyna’s initiative in organizing ‘Men Talk Consent’ two-day workshop on April 29 and 30, 2017 between 10AM to 4PM.

Editor’s note: Any male college student can enrol for the workshop. Details regarding registration can be found in the poster above. 

An ode: International Day of Transgender Visibility with Aravani Art Project

“Initially, they (transgenders) are very unsure of why they are doing it or what they are doing which is completely understandable because it is a very new thing to be painting a wall. After the first day, they just want to come and paint. They like the process, they like the fact that they are doing some work and the results are in front of them. And it is also more fun when all of us are together. It is some sort of a meditational thing, coming here every morning and painting and eating lunch together,” – Poornima Sukumar, Founder of the Aravani Art Project.

This International Day of Transgender Visibility, the Aravani Art Project is at the government allocated housing to the transgender people in the Tsunami quarters in Ernavour (on March 30, 31 and April 1, 2017). “We are going to be painting the same building where they all live,” notes Poornima Sukumar, artist and founder of the Aravani Art Project. Unlike other cities where the transgender community wanted a voice with the Aravani Art Project, in Chennai they already are part of a community and hence the project chose a space where they belong.

Aravani Art Project in Chennai

“I found them to be so bold and so much more like a woman. We (cis-women) are also like that but we have been pushed down by patriarchy for whatever reason. But it was nice to see these women coming out and fighting against all odds, believing who they were and following their heart.”

Growing close to the transgender community during her work with a documentary film involving the community, Sukumar decided to start the Aravani Art Project in early 2016 as way to continue her engagement with the community and to also get them involved with an art project that is for them and by them. It was her first project, an experiment involving her friends and the transgender community, that gave her the confidence to take the project to other cities.

The objective of the project is to get to know the transgender community more personally by getting them involved them like anybody else in a project. The idea is to also give the public an opportunity to have conversations with the community. Sukumar notes that though many want to engage and interact with the community, they don’t know the right way to go about it.

“We do not force people to talk to each other. Neither do we encourage people to know about each other’s back story because that’s not what we always want. We want to know them as just people and hang out with them just as we would with any other friend.”

With every edition of the project focusing on a specific aspect that the community in the city wishes to focus on, the Chennai edition’s focus has been the policing of the transgender community in Chennai. This has been a serious concern in Chennai following the death of Tara, a transgender woman under suspicious circumstances outside a police station in the city.

“This time, their concern is only about why the policing has not stopped. They are worried about themselves because they don’t know how safe they are. There is no guarantee for their safety. So that’s the safety issue that they want to raise. We also want to push the fact that they are in need of humanity,” explains Sukumar.

Though the project is not partnering with any one organisation in the city, members from Sinegadhi in Chennai are participating in the Chennai edition. Katiyakaari, a theatre group from Chennai has also been supportive of the project in the city. The project also comes with its own set of challenges. Sukumar notes that though “people are ok with peeing on a wall, sitting on it, letting it crack away“, they aren’t too comfortable when someone wants to paint it, giving it some attention. She says people seem to be averse to the idea. Hence permission always seems to be a concern for the project. There is also the need to build trust with the transgender community in any city before they decide to be a part of the project in their city. It also took her four trips to Chennai before she was taken seriously.

“I can’t just go one day and say I’m going to paint a wall for you, so come and paint with me. They are not going to immediately say ok, we’ll leave everything we everyday and come there to paint. It requires a lot of time and patience for them to know that I’m serious about what I’m saying and I’m not doing this for any media gimmick of sorts and that it is purely for them and by them.”

This, Sukumar notes after taking the project to Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur and even SriLanka. Thanks to the economic environment in Mumbai, the transgender community in the city, according to her is relatively more street smart. Bangalore, on the contrary, is still a little closed and sadly, has no time for the transgender community per say. In Chennai, it has been more about relationship building for the Aravani Art Project. Being the smallest of the Indian cities that the Project has been to, the Jaipur edition was about addressing and being their voice for their issues.

“In Jaipur, people were really shocked to see transgenders coming out and painting. It is just that they have never even imagined them doing anything else. It was a really nice experience for the community themselves that they could do it. And we’ve painted it in the metro station so they are very proud of it. They feel really good.”

Apart from some support from an organisation called Arogya Seva that supports them for the food and paints, the project is completely voluntary. The Aravani Art Project’s members are all artists and individuals who volunteer for this project. The project is also open to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) support from different organisations. If sufficient funds can be raised, Sukumar hopes to also teach art to the transgender community.

What happens after the Aravani Art Project’s edition in Chennai is complete? How will they take it forward? On that note, Sukumar explains that being a part of this project is not going to get the transgender community any direct attention. They feel satisfied when they do something like this and that’s the reason they are doing it.

“It is an overview and a homage to what has happened. It is a homepage and ode to Tara and all the other transgenders who went before her.”

Here is a podcast  about celebrating the Koovagam festival :

#IWillGoOut Chennai goes online due to Jallikattu issue

A campaign went online on the 21st of January 2017 in Chennai. The campaign –addressed as #IWillGoOut (IWGO)that went online in Chennai was part of a larger nationwide gathering that happened on the 21st of January in over 20 Indian cities including Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Thrissur, Silchar, Ranchi, Puducherry, Kolkata, Jaipur, Lucknow, Karimganj, Chandigarh, Kangra and Gurgaon.

The campaign, as per IWGO website, is to convey solidarity, solidarity against sexual harassment and misogyny, solidarity to reclaim women’s rights to public spaces enabling safety and security for women. The campaign was also about easing of approach to report crimes (by women) committed against them and compulsory gender sensitisation training. IWGO, which has a team of1500 members with about 80 active participants was initially started to condemn the sexual harassment of girls and women in Bengaluru on New Year’s eve.

Nationally, IWGO intends to present a national manifesto with region specific petitions under sexual harassment,misogyny,women’s right to reclaim public spaces enabling safety and security for women. While the other cities and towns had a mass gathering, #IWillGoOut march in Chennai decided to change the format of the event and go online with the campaign. The reason was the mass Jallikattu protest happening in Chennai with the Marina Beach as the nerve-centre of the protest: #IWillGoOut had also planned to hold their campaign in the Marina Beach. The 2017 pro-Jallikattu protests, refers to numerous leaderless apolitical youth groups protesting in January 2017 in large groups in several locations across Tamil Nadu, against the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu- a Tamil -traditional bull taming sport held during Pongal, a harvest festival in the state of Tamil Nadu.

The organisers of #IWillGoOut Chennai didn’t see sense in having a march on the Marina beach. “Owing to the large-scale Jallikattu protest happening in the city, we realised that the impact of a march on the Marina beach wouldn’t have had a huge impact, said Archana Sekhar, one of the many organisers of #IWillGoOut Chennai. Hence it was decided to have an online campaign in Chennai that to voice the personal thoughts of women from all walks of life, one of the highlights being the female version of the song SaddaHaq with verses in both English and Tamil rendered by singer/rapper Sofia Ashraf.

Though Chennai had planned to show its solidarity online to this nationwide gathering, many women and men took to the streets and had a peaceful march inside the Nageshwara Rao Park in Mylapore. It was a small gathering that ended with a self-defence Silambattam performance by Aishwarya Manivannan. Silambattam in Tamil (often) refers specifically to stick-fighting.

The region specific petitions for women’s right to reclaim public spaces enabling safety and security for women were supposed to be given to the State Police Department, Ministry of Home Affairs and Women and Child Welfare Ministry,but Chennai doesn’t seem to have had any such petition given to the Ministry.

Sofia Ashraf, one of the organisers of IWGO, Chennai had said two days prior to the nationwide #IWillGoOut march about the Jallikattu protest:

For the first time in my generation, there is a mass uprising of women across the country and I’m desperate to be part of it. But, I’m uncomfortable about calling other women to join me on the streets considering the Jallikattu Protests are at their peak right now. Yes, women are safely protesting alongside the Jallikattu Protesters. But, it needs to be noted that these women are on the side of the protestors. While the Jallikattu Protests are laudable with regard to sheer passion and discipline, it must be noted that there is also a huge thread of chauvinistic cultural pride that echoes through their chants. The Jallikattu Protests are being misappropriated by many to spread an agenda of cultural supremacy. In such an environment, a mob of women stepping out wearing what they like and espousing what most see as ‘western ideologies’ when actually it is just ‘human ideas of freedom and liberty’ seems like an easy target for the cultural chauvinists to attack. This is a risk i don’t want to impose on others.

Photo credit: I Will Go Out, Chennai Chapter
Photo credit: I Will Go Out, Chennai Chapter

More on Chennai’s online campaign here.

Where to find help for HIV and AIDS patients in Tamil Nadu?

Hello again from the capital city of Tamil Nadu! Its HIV awareness week so it would be most appropriate to bring to you public health services available to women and children affected by HIV/AIDS especially in Tamil Nadu. Let us first take a look at some numbers to understand what we are doing right and if we are doing enough. The UNAIDS Gap report, 2016, states that in 2013, HIV prevalence in India was an estimated 0.3%. This figure is considerably small compared to most of the other middle-income countries. However, since India has an enormous population of approximately 1.2 billion people, this equates to 2.1 million people living with HIV. Of this infected population, an estimated 1,30,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses. Overall, India’s HIV epidemic is slowing down, with a 19% decline in new HIV infections (130,000 in 2013 to 86,000 in 2016).

SAATHI, an NGO striving towards prevention and control of HIV since the year 2000, has published that children under the age of 15 account for 4.4% of all infections while women account for 39% of all HIV infected women. That gives us a population of 0.93 million women and 43000 pregnant women infected with HIV. It has also been noted that TamilNadu is one of the (Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) which put together account for 57% of the HIV infected people in India.

How is it Transmitted?

HIV is transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected person, through blood transfusion with infected blood, and through an infected mother to her child during childbirth, among other routes of transmission. Though HIV is transmitted through several modes of fluid exchange, it is majorly acquired through sexual intercourse and is associated with the same in our country. Therefore unprotected sex is high risk behaviour for contracting the virus. HIV compromises the immune system of the individual and therefore, makes the individual susceptible to any common infection around them. Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) also seem to serve as an important risk factor, which facilitate the transmission and acquisition of HIV due to the presence of ulcers and inflammation of the skin or mucous membranes of the genitalia. Specialist treatment is provided in all the STD clinics free of cost.   In addition HIV/AIDS cases are treated as in-patients in Government Hospitals of Thoracic Medicine, Tambaram, Government General Hospital and also in Medical College Hospitals for all opportunistic infections, free of cost.  Adequate funds are also released to the Director of Medical Education and Director of Medical and Rural Health Services for supply of medicine, equipment and other minor civil works, etc.

In Government Hospital of Thoracic Medicine, Tambaram, Siddha medicines along with other allopathic medicine are also given to persons affected with HIV/AIDS on trial basis which has showed slight improvement to the patients.

What is Available?

Available on Public Domain:

There are several portals with links to “helpful sites” for those in need of information. However quite a few of these links lead nowhere and leave a person very frustrated. For a person searching for necessary information, this would leave them desperate and depressed for want of information.

To get better insight into the services provided by the various centers for care of the HIV infected patients, I spoke to a few of the public health centers and gathered that while some of them provide testing others simply provide services such as IEC (Information Education Communication), integrated counselling and testing centers, etc. On asking the personnel present, I was informed that while information was available freely, mentioning the name of the organization was forbidden without approval from the city council. This piece of information was disheartening, though I received unhindered information from the people working there. Also the state is going a long way to promote HIV testing by trying to eliminate the stigma and discrimination associated with it. The Health Secretary Mr. J. Radhakrishnan told reporters on the side-lines of an event organised as part of World AIDS Awareness Day on December 1st 2016, that though India does not permit HIV self-testing, Tamil Nadu is planning to allow self-testing with HIV kit at home. This would be permitted after quality testing and also evaluating how it can be adopted in the State. This is a major milestone in the elimination of the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV.

On further research I noticed that there are several websites which offer education as well as help to those who go seeking it. Apart from health centres established by the state (Health and Family welfare Department, Govt. of TamilNadu), working towards the goal of prevention and further spread of HIV/AIDS. To name a few, I came across SAATHI, Desire Society, AIDS Research Foundation of India and Indian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. SAATHI has several projects in play all year around. One of their core programmes is prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) project which focusses on reducing vertical transmission (mother to child) among pregnant women accessing private health sector in the high risk states. Some of the important services provided by SAATHII are:

  1. Technical, Financial and Operational Assistance
  2. Advocacy
  3. Research to generate evidence for informed programme responses
  4. Knowledge transfer and sharing of HIV-related science, policy and advocacy updates
  5. Networking to bring people from multiple sectors together and foster collaborations

Where We Stand

We have come a long way, in our quest to prevent and control the spread of HIV/AIDS. The effort of the TamilNadu government in cahoots with other organization speaks a great deal about the sincerity of this state to bring this epidemic under control and make the state inclusive for those unfortunate to have contracted the infection.

List of STD Clinics in Tamil Nadu where HIV testing and other services are available:

SNo. Name of the District Name of the Medical Institution in which STD Department/Clinic is functioning.
   1. Chennai 1. Government General Hospital, Chennai.
2. Government Stanley Hospital, Chennai.
3. Government Royapettah Hospital, Chennai.
   2. Thiruvallur 4. Government Hospital, Thiruthani.
5. Government Head Quarters Hospital, Tiruvallur.
   3. Kancheepuram 6. Government Head Quarters Hospital, Kancheepuram.
7. Government Chengalpattu Medical College, Hospital     Chengalpattu.
   4. Vellore  8. Government Pentland Hospital, Vellore
9. Government Hospital, Tiruppathur.
10. Government Hospital, Gudiyatham.
  5. Thiruvannamalai 11.  Government Headquarters Hospital,        Thiruvannamalai.
  6. Villupuram 12.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Villupuram.
13.  Government Hospital, Kallakurichi.
  7. Cuddalore 14.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Cuddalore.
  8. Salem 15.  Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College Hospital, Salem.
16.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Mettur Dam.
  9. Dharmapuri 17.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Dharmapuri.
18.  Government Hospital, Krishnagiri.
19.  Government Hospital, Hosur.
 10. Erode 20.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Erode.
21.  Government Hospital, Gobichettipalayam.
 11. Nilgiris 22.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Ootacamund
23.  Government Hospital, Coonoor.
 12. Coimbatore 24.  Government Coimbatore Medical College Hospital,  Coimbatore.
25.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Tiruppur.
26.  Government Hospital, Udumalpet.
 13. Dindigul 27.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Dindigul.
28.  Government Hospital, Palani.
 14. Namakkal 29.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Namakkal.
 15. Karur 30.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Karur.
 16. Perambalur 31.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Perambalur
 17. Tiruchirapalli 32.  Government Annal Gandhi Memorial Medical College Hospital, Tiruchirapalli.
33.  Government Hospital, Thuraiyur.
34.  Government Hospital, Srirangam.
 18. Thanjavur 35.  Government Hospital, Kumbakonam.
36.  Government R.S.Hospital, Thanjavur.
37.  Government Hospital, Pattukottai.
38.  Government Hospital, Mayiladuthurai.
 19. Thiruvarur NIL
20. Nagapattinam 39.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Nagapattinam.
21. Pudukkottai 40.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Pudukkottai.
41.  Government Hospital, Aranthangi.
 22. Sivagangai 42.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Sivagangai
23. Madurai 43.  Government Rajaji Hospital, Madurai.
44.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Usilampatti
24. Theni 45.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Periakulam at Theni.
 25. Virudhunagar 46.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Virudhunagar
 26. Ramanathapuram 47.  Government Headquarters Hospital,        Ramanathapuram.
48.  Government Hospital, Rameswaram.
 27. Thoothukudi 49.  Government Medical College Hospital, Thoothukudi
50.  Government Hospital, Tiruchendur.
 28. Thirunelveli 51.  Thirunelveli Medical College Hospital, Thirunelveli.
52.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Thenkasi.
53.  Government Hospital, Koilpatti.
54.  Government Hospital, Sankarankoil.
 29. Kanyakumari 55.  Government Headquarters Hospital, Nagercoil.
56.  Government Hospital, Padmanabhapuram.

Here’s a list of care and support centres compiled for any patient’s reference:

LIST OF CARE AND SUPPORT CENTRES

USEFUL LINKS

AIDS Prevention and Control Project

AVERT

National AIDS Control Organisation

South Asia against AIDS Foundation

Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

The United Nations Children’s Fund

World Health Organization

You and AIDS

Chennai’s confusion with contraceptives and abortion pills

With the advent of various methods of contraception including oral contraceptive pills, a woman who is unprepared to start a family is no longer helpless or so we thought. It may not be so in Chennai. Usually, women can use a daily pill or in case of emergencies, Emergency Contraceptive Pills. Emergency contraceptive pills (ECP), commonly known as morning-after pills, prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. The biggest advantage of the ECP in India is to prevent unwanted pregnancies and therefore prevent termination of pregnancy under unhygienic and unsafe conditions.

Popular brands include Piramal’s i-Pill, Unwanted-72 from Mankind Pharma, EC2 by Zydus, Norlevo from Win Medicare and E-Pill by Panchsheel Organics. In the absence of contraceptives, doctors say that morning-after pills are the best alternative for a woman to avoid the strain of an abortion. Though emergency contraceptive pills were made available over the counter in 2005, it may not be so in Tamil Nadu.

In 2002, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare made ECP available in India, following which, in 2005 ECPs were made (i.e. drugs that do not require a prescription) drugs. Ever since the legal availability of ECPs, Tamil Nadu has had a woman at the helm for more than two terms and yet the situation is bleak for women living here. I have heard from some women living here about the scarcity and difficulty they have in accessing ECPs, being public health professional, I decided to check the situation out for myself, posing as a patient who needed an ECP. I went to a select few prominent Government Hospitals around Chennai namely:

  • Kasturbai Gandhi Hospital for Women and Children in Triplicane,
  • Govt. General Hospital, Park Town,
  • Govt. General Hospital, Royapettah,
  • Govt. Hospital for women and children, Egmore
  • And Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital

I started with Kasturbai Gandhi Hospital for Women and Children in Triplicane. I went to the in-house pharmacy asking for the ECP. The pharmacists had no idea what I was talking about until I mentioned the term oral contraceptive. However, they still told me only about the 30-day regime. When the pharmacists were not of much help, I asked a few nurses if they had the Morning-After pill. I only got bewildered expressions and questions about what exactly it was that I was asking for. I further elaborated on what I meant by the morning-after pill. I asked if they had the I-pill and still got nothing. When I mentioned oral contraceptive pills again to the nurses, there was recognition. They simply said that I needed to meet the doctor and she would prescribe the 30-day strip for me. This left me dumbfounded. I had a firsthand glance into the ignorance of healthcare workers in the public hospitals. However, the government does provide condoms in the family planning section of the hospital, which was a relief, that they are making an effort at promoting safety and family planning.

I then decided to go to other government hospitals and some private pharmacies in other areas – Egmore, Teynampet and Royapettah, to check for availability of these ECPs. Each time I was told that it was either out of stock or that they do not sell it in their pharmacies. Not only did I return empty handed but, some of the pharmacists even frowned upon the fact that I was asking for it. After visiting 4 pharmacies, I had had enough. An over the counter prescription free drug, which is available even in some of the backward cities in India, is not available in its health capital.

Back in 2008-09, senior obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Jayashree Gajaraj, President of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Society of South India was quoted in an article as saying “Three years ago, when the product was just launched in the market, we told women that there was a revolution in the offing. Today, many women are aware of the option, but they don’t have access to the pill.”

The report also talks about a rise in the number of abortions observed by the gynaecologists in the city. Government data released state-wise for the number of medical terminations of pregnancies performed in the country also seems to support this fact. Tamil Nadu seems to be the top 4 states with maximum number of medical terminations of pregnancy in the country between 2008 and 2013, although the reasons for the terminations are not known.

Dr. Anusha Aravind, practicing in the city of Chennai speaking on the issue says, “The ban on morning-after pills is very much opposed by practitioners as this leads to abortions as only option for women. The process of abortion is very stressful for women and is strongly associated with the emotion of guilt which is very hard for them to overcome.” She says it is ridiculous to confuse morning-after pills with abortion pills because an ECP is just one pill while abortion pills are four in number. She further clarifies that the ECP is the best solution for women who are not ready for the pregnancy and simply aids in a delay in ovulation. She also states that the morning-after pill doesn’t work at all stages of the ovulation cycle and is a necessity in a state where there isn’t much awareness or popularity of the female condom. The ban on these pills leads to unnecessary complications for women and is definitely putting more women at risk of unsafe and unnecessary abortions. While abortion pills bring about contractions of the uterine wall the morning-after pill does no such thing.

What is the compositional difference?

While the ECP is composed of a drug named Levonorgestrel, the pill for abortion is composed of Mifepristone in combination with misoprostol. The composition of the morning-after pill is completely different when compared to that of the abortion pill and it is baffling to see that these could actually be thought of interchangeably.

As I completed my exercise of Assessing Awareness and Availability of morning- after pills in Chennai, I concluded that the Chennai is not as inclusive as we would like it to be. On further research into the issue, I gathered that this is largely because of the misconception that an ECP is a method of abortion and not contraception. This leads me to conclude that a ban on moral grounds and confusion with abortion pills means that it is next to impossible to find emergency contraceptive pills in the city. I also know of men and women (myself included), who have no idea that such a ban exists in Tamil Nadu, maybe because they had no need for the morning-after pill.

This could also indicate a lack of awareness regarding Emergency Contraceptive Pills. This is understandable when healthcare workers responsible for spreading awareness are themselves ignorant of such a pill. It is vital we understand that ECPs are contraceptive pills and not abortion pills. It is better , particularly with reference to unsafe and unhygienic abortions. Awareness and access to ECPs, without the stigma attached to it, similar to easy availability and access to condoms will help our women live life and make choices while keeping their self-respect and dignity!

Sexual and Reproductive Health Centres: What Chennai has to offer women

As a woman and as a Public Health practitioner, women’s sexual and reproductive health is of extreme importance and relevance. So, I thought I could start off this series with a look into Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP), in layman’s terms Abortion. There’s no better place to start than at home, Chennai. MTP raises a variety of moral, social and legal questions. If the pregnant woman feels the necessity to terminate her pregnancy, does she have the right to do so? If she does upto what moment and on what conditions? MTP is legal only upto 20 weeks of pregnancy and only under certain specific conditions, such as:

  1. If continuation of the pregnancy would be a risk either physically/mentally to the mother
  2. If the woman is not ready to become a mother yet
  3. If the fetus shows abnormality in the scan and tests, which would prove that it would be born severely handicapped. According to the Declaration of Chennai, Review of the MTP act in order to halt sex selective abortion, in 2007, it was established that it is the Woman’s right to chose to carry the child to term or terminate the pregnancy. All this information was easily accessible and very informative.

The provision for MTP services was the next big question on my mind. So, I did a quick search on public domain with simple keywords like, abortion clinics in Chennai, MTP clinics in Chennai, government abortion clinics etc. This is some of the information that I could gather. Abortions are done in a hospital or in a clinic that specializes in abortions and both may have separate requirements. To have an abortion in a hospital, you may need to visit a birth control clinic, your family doctor or a women’s health centre first. In both the clinic and the hospital, the actual procedure takes about 10 minutes but they may insist on keeping the woman under observation as seen fit. Some of the places where you can get the required information on MTP services are:

  1. A women’s healthcare centre at a hospital
  2. A Planned Parenthood Association
  3. Your nearest public health unit
  4. A birth control centre

What is given and what is not!

However, beware! There are also quite a few illegal MTP centers in several areas around Chennai. So kindly enquire thoroughly before choosing a clinic. On further research into the number of centers, I found that over three-quarters of abortion-certified facilities are in the private sector. MTP is every Woman’s right and to deny her the same, is not only a violation of her rights but also, putting her in harm’s way. An online search fails to provide easy access to information on MTP clinics in Chennai. It just gives us a clinic name and address in the yellow pages or Just Dial.

Any online search result does not provide reviews or description of services that could help a woman in need to decide if it would be the right place for her. With the importance of that decision weighing down on her while she is going in for a procedure that is emotionally and mentally gut wrenching and nerve wracking, it would definitely be much better if the search would yield, more in-depth results. I found the names and addresses of around 90 Clinics and hospitals with Obstetricians and Gynecological services of which only 10 to 15% were government institutions.

A holistic approach is needed that will not lead to more women seeking out unsafe abortion providers, resulting in an increase in maternal deaths. A long-lasting solution can be achieved, only by bringing about a cultural change and definitely not by clamping down on abortion services and drug availability. India is far from this goal but She is most definitely on Her way, one step at a time!

Author profile:

Dr. Meenakshi Thiagarajan is a dentist and a Public Health professional. Women’s sexual and reproductive health are her areas of interest. In her free time, she pens her thoughts down. You can find her writing on social stigmas.

What is it like to be raised by a feminist; a man in Chennai? #makeyourcityinclusive

What is it like to be raised by a feminist? Even better, what is it like when the parent is a man and not a feminist woman? I was raised by my paternal uncle who according to me is a feminist. Ask him and he might not go with any tag. But he would say that his daughter (me) is a feminist, beaming with pride. I was absolutely certain about his inclination when he aligned his vote to a party that would support equal rights for women during the elections. “I don’t want to vote for a party that might worsen the status of women in the country,” he said.

Just setting the record straight, I was not raised in an upper class home. I was raised in a middle-class home of a bank clerk (my uncle) in Chennai. I went to a middle-class, all-girls school. Students commuted using private vans, autos, cycles or public buses. As for me, my uncle used to drop me at school and I walked back home.

I was always encouraged to learn anything I wanted to — karate, bharatnatyam, Indian classical music, western classical music, arts, basketball, softball, kabadi and what not. I could pursue anything or discontinue any of it at my own will. It was never affected by things like “Girls are not made to play a sport”, “You have reached puberty”, “It will make you too boyish”, “I don’t want you acting like a boy”, “You played enough as a child.” and so on. I have actually heard my classmates’ parents, one after another say this to their daughters at some point.

I was never raised for marriage. I was raised to be an individual. A standard dialogue that my friends’ parents gave them when they crossed any line that was not meant to be — “If you act like this, what will your in-laws say when you are married? They will blame us if you are careless or irresponsible.” I know parents who told this to their 12-13 year old daughters. Though I grew up around girls who heard this at home, I never once heard it in my life and I know that I never will. When I misbehaved, I was asked to take responsibility because it would affect me as an adult. It was never my in-laws, husband or anybody else.

I have had short hair almost all my life. I was never discouraged. It was always — “your hair and your decision”. Did it make me any less a woman than the others around me? I doubt it. As a teenager, I have had people on the road actually think out loud — “Is this a boy or a girl?” Nothing stopped me because my uncle saw no difference in me. All options were given to me only as choices I could make and I had to live with consequences of my choices.

via GIPHY

My uncle has never been someone who vociferously propagated feminism or condemned misogynists. He has always been that silent guy who has done his bit. Be it just handing out awareness stickers outside a park after the Nirbhaya incident or raising me to be the woman that I’m. Was it easy being raised by a single man? Of course not! My uncle might not have entirely understood the changes that my body went through while growing up, but he always tried to understand. I have a problem with sanitary napkin commercials. Why is it always women in these ads? Why not men? Men also buy sanitary napkins for women in their lives. My sanitary napkins were bought by my uncle for most of my life whenever I needed them.

Was it easy breaking stereotypes and living by good self-worth handed down to me at home? Hell no! Why and when was it worth it? I have been groped in buses, teased on the road, rubbed against at cinema theatres and what not. The courage that my uncle gave me, made me stand up for myself even when I was just 14 years old, still in school. His courage and support made me stand up for myself over and over again because he never once pointed fingers at the clothes I wore or anything else about me. Directly or indirectly, it was never my fault. I have seen parents who never directly blame the girls for any mishap but they would subtly ask their daughters to dress in a certain way to avoid any attention on the road. I don’t blame these parents because they were handed down those values and thinking from their parents. They were only giving what best they could to their kids. But when will it stop?

“What if you made a wrong choice? It could affect a woman more than a man.” 

Firstly, so what if I make a mistake? Men also make mistakes. Men also have pressures. Even their mistakes would cost them the same or more than women depending on the circumstances and situations. I have seen many women and men break the barriers handed down by their parents to set themselves free.

A child’s benchmark or vision of the world is one that is handed down to him/her from their parents. For a long time I did not realise the gender bias that exists in the society because that was never handed down to me at home. My uncle saw no difference between a boy and a girl which to me as a child meant no difference in the society. In fact, the difference came to me as a rude shock some fine day in my teenage.

How your parents respond to your actions defines so much of your self-worth, self-image and self-respect while growing up. It definitely did for me. In fact, I’m glad it did. Parenting is also about handing down good values, isn’t it?

Parenting is also about setting the right example. I was raised by an extremely good example, a divorcee who never once spoke ill of his ex-wife to me or to anyone else. Mind you, his ex-wife was the first respondent for their divorce. He has always seen marriage as an option available to men and women and that has been my yardstick to look at life with choices and options. In any bad experience with any woman, my uncle would never generalise all women as offenders. It was just that one woman, never all women. It helped me realise that not all men are bad. The intentions of both men and women may be negative and it cannot be generalised. Just like how all feminists are not man-haters and not all feminists are women! I know it because my uncle may not claim to be a feminist but I definitely was raised by one.

I was raised in the heart of T.Nagar in Chennai, India, not in some first-world fantasy land!