As someone born and raised in Canada, I believe I was raised in a privileged environment. Although I was born into a Hong Kong immigrant family, I was still given space and opportunities for leadership and freedom to make decisions for myself. I was generally well-respected by my peers and racial and gender discrimination was not socially acceptable behaviour in my society (these were the spaces I occupied, but it is not the case for every Canadian). I was also given sexual health education by the age of 10 years and it was not a shameful topic to discuss in the classroom (albeit still embarrassing!). I believe this helped me and my peers to better understand each other and respect each other’s bodies and sexualities. In Canada, I am a cis-gender heterosexual woman with certain unearned privileges, rights, and freedoms.
Martha Farrell Foundation’s (MFF) work is important because I believe all women should have access to the same rights and freedoms as men, and women should be able to openly advocate for themselves without fearing safety & discrimination.
It became particularly apparent to me the importance of MFF’s work and the significance of sexual health education after a personal experience I had a few months after my arrival.
On a typical hot July day in Delhi, I had a glimpse into what many women face in India. I was on the public bus on one of the most popular routes to a government hospital. The bus was so crowded that my arms and legs were bound by the sheer amount of people pushing against me from all sides. Me and two other women were standing in a row, sandwiched between the knees of two seated women and the seats in front of them, and we were being pushed against the window side (you can imagine how packed it was).
It was a sweltering day with no A/C on the bus. Sweat was pouring down my face, into my eyes, and blinding my vision. I did not even have a free hand to wipe the sweat off my brow. As a foreigner and visitor to this country, I held my breath and accepted my surroundings as life in itself. Then a man boarded the bus and squeezed through the crowd and stood next to me. As the bus went along, the man started pushing against me and imposed himself onto me. When I realized what was happening, I tried to wriggle free but his force was too heavy and strong along with the weight of the crowd around me.
Others on the bus saw what was happening and shouted at the man to give me space but he responded in Hindi and motioned to the crowd behind him and said (what I presume) that it was too crowded and he could not do anything about it.
Then another woman boarded the bus and squeezed between us, and he attempted to do the same to her. She protested but he responded with the same. The bus eventually cleared and the man disembarked. But what was left was a situation that could have been prevented if more awareness was brought to adequate sexual health education and respect for women’s bodies.
When I arrived at MFF in early May 2019, fresh off the plane from Toronto, Canada, I did not expect the Kadam Badhate Chalo (KBC) program to allow me to discuss sexual and reproductive health topics. Friends and colleagues back home had “cautioned” me to not discuss these subjects in a conservative Indian society (as I am quite vocal about sexual health topics and my background professional work in Canada entails sexual health education).
However, on my first day, it was made clear to me that MFF supports sexual health education as it is a determinant in preventing violence against women and creating safer spaces for women and girls. In my first two weeks at MFF, I worked with KBC staff to develop a sexual health curriculum to be used in communities like Sonepat, Haryana (which has one of the highest rates of sexualized violence against women and girls in India).
When we, as a society, have a better awareness of our bodies and sexualities and of consent and healthy relationship building, we are able to better respect and advocate for our rights and freedoms as human beings.
My one small experience on the bus only demonstrates that there needs to be more awareness around safer public spaces for women and girls, and adequate education of both men and women’s bodies and sexualities. We all have a sister, mother, daughter, or female friend. That is why I believe sexual health education is everybody’s issue and everybody’s responsibility.
Olvie Li, is currently pursuing her Master in Social Dimensions of Health from the University of Victoria, Canada, and is doing an internship at PRIA & Martha Farrell Foundation assisting in various projects including the Youth-N-Democracy program which facilitates arts-based interventions to empower youth voices in India’s democracy.