Own Their Bodies?

Recent reports from the International AIDS Confer-ence in Bangkok painted a grim picture of women’s health in India. It appears that we now have an AIDS epidemic of unsurpassed proportions in India, where it is estimated that the highest numbers of HIV-infected people in the world will soon be residing. Unlike the United States and many Western nations, where AIDS is found mostly among homosexual men, in India, the proportion of women among those infected with HIV is close to 50 percent. This is an unprecedented health crisis and the world is only now beginning to recognize it as such.

Most women infected with the disease in India are either sex workers or wives whose husbands have been promiscuous. The root causes of the disease can be summarized in two words: patriarchy and silence. Despite the fact that most people in India get married in their 20s and promptly begin to reproduce, sex as a topic of conversation remains taboo, both in and out of the bedroom. A woman is afraid to even express her preferences in bed–if she knows enough about sex to have any–let alone insist that her husband use a condom. This culture of silence is so prevalent in South Asia that the World Health Organization and other international bodies are trying to devise contraceptives such as microbicides or female condoms that can be used without the knowledge of male sexual partners.

Now if that isn’t tragic, what is?

Mind you, we can’t entirely fault women in the Third World for not owning their bodies. Many women in America too are forced to use sex and their bodies as leverage in romantic relationships. I know quite a few single women in their 40s in the Bay Area, who, after years on the dating circuit, have learned a few basic facts, one of which is that men will only pay attention to them if there is the lure of an immediate roll in the hay. Otherwise, many women say, it is impossible to get the male companionship that they crave.

In India, an extreme form of patriarchy still exists, where men do not know that women too are supposed to experience sexual climax. And it doesn’t stop there. Women are forced to produce only male children through female infanticide and through high-tech methods such as ultrasound or amniocentesis used for identification of female fetuses for the express purpose of destroying them. And if a girl is born despite the odds stacked against her, statistics indicate that she is fed less than her male siblings and given little or no medical care in case of illness. As an adolescent and adult, she receives no education about contraceptives or AIDS, and has little say in choosing a marriage partner. The size of her dowry and the financial and social standing of her parents often influence whom she is married to. And after marriage, her survival depends solely on her ability to produce a male heir.

With AIDS so rampant in India now, there is a new development in the marriage market. An HIV-positive male from a high-status family can now get a young bride who is not only able to provide a dowry but is also HIV-negative.

It is therefore more crucial than ever before for us to fight the patriarchal system. The survival of the Indian population itself might depend on us being able to do so.

The first step is to put women in charge of their bodies. And the only way to do so is to teach them that their bodies are more than the instrument of male pleasure or machines for producing male progeny. Women must be empowered to make choices about sex, marriage, and reproduction. The taboo against unmarried women, widows, and divorcees must be removed.

But most of all, the culture of silence must change. Growing up in India, my mother told me nothing about puberty, sex, reproduction, birth control, the connection between love and intimacy, and my right to say “no.” In fact, saying “no” in all sorts of life situations is a skill that I only recently began to master, so culturally ingrained it is in us South Asian women to want to say “yes” to everyone and everything.

It was only when, as an adult, I began to compare notes with my friends did I discover that their mothers had told them nothing about sex either.

Cultural change has to start at home. Women must teach their daughters and sisters and neighbors and friends that their bodies belong to them and no one else. That they have an obligation to take care of themselves first and their families second. It was a lesson I myself learned late in life, because I was so programmed to put my parents, my brother, my children, my partner, even my relatives and friends first.

But most of all, the topic of sex must come out into the open. Only then will we be able to stop India from being ravaged by a deadly disease.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.

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