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Published: March 5th 2008
The first run of the Let’s Talk! Program for Women was a huge success! Days 2 and 3 went just as well as the first. Everyone showed up for all 3 days, and they could not thank me enough at the end. And now I have people calling me to “register” for the next sessions because they heard about it from their friends. I wish my participants in my U.S. studies were so anxious!
The women who attended continued to ask relevant and often blunt questions, including:
Are headaches a sign of an STD?
Can you reuse condoms?
How do you get breast cancer?
What are lesbians? How do they have sex?
What is casual sex?
What can a woman do if she has sex with a man and then he leaves her and tells all of his friends?
So we pretty much covered all bases of women and sexual health. On Day 2 I brought in the vibrator and they passed it around hesitantly, giggling and discussing in Nepali. Of course they don’t have access to such things here, but I thought it was good to show them that masturbation is perfectly healthy for women, and that in the U.S. we even have toys to help with it.
We practiced using condoms on bananas (keraa in Nepali—which are about half the size they are in the U.S.), and role-played how to get your partner to use a condom. They were a little shy about these activities, but because I demonstrated first and was so casual about it, I think they felt more comfortable.
Although most of these women had basic knowledge of STIs/HIV, contraceptives, etc., it really was basic knowledge. People keep telling me that women in Kathmandu do not need to be educated because they already have the knowledge, but clearly a lot of these women have misconceptions about topics related to sex, such as thinking that you can reuse condoms, that wearing black colored or wired bras can give you breast cancer, or (and this is my favorite), that if a woman turns over onto her stomach immediately after having sex that it will prevent her from getting pregnant because the ejaculate will come out. (!!) So yeah, the women in the villages, who are very undereducated, are at even greater risk for sexual health issues. But here in the Valley where people are becoming more “modern” and thus more sexually liberated, the risk for STIs/HIV is very real because their knowledge is still not where it should be.
Another thing relevant to women in the Valley as well as the villages is the fact that so many men migrate to other countries for work, probably in many cases sleep with other women, and then could potentially bring STIs/HIV home to their wives. This is of great concern particularly for men who work in India where the HIV rate is among the highest in the world. These women, thinking they are married and do not need protection, could be putting them at high risk for HIV. So this was one thing I had the opportunity to stress in the program—we want to trust our male partners, but the only way to be completely safe and to protect our own health is to wear a condom every time. They all seemed to agree. Let’s just hope they take that advice seriously when they end up in relationships.
After the program a few women came back into the room. “Michelle, you are psychologist, no?”
“Yes,” I said, “I have degrees in psychology.”
“What can you tell about us and our psychology by looking at us?”
Oy. “Well, I can tell that you are smart women, you are educated, confident, and that if you continue on this path you will achieve many good things in your life.” They bought it, and seemed very satisfied with that response.
Then another woman, the one I suspected has had sex even though she is not married, came back and wanted to ask me more questions in confidence. “What would you do if you had sex with man, then he leave you?”
Another oy. “You mean if he broke up with you right after having sex? Were you in love with him? You cared about him very much?”
“Yes,” she said, and her eyes welled up.
“I know, that can be very painful. But I think the only thing you can do is to not let it bother you—that you remember that after the hurt goes away, things will be okay again.”
And then she told me she wanted to dump him back, that she wanted revenge.
“Well, the best revenge is to show him that you are happy. Show him that you are still a confident, happy woman even though he hurt you. And if he knows it does not bother you, then that is the best way to get back at him.”
Again, she seemed satisfied with that answer. I forget sometimes that in educating women that they will often then confide in me about related issues that sometimes I’m not really prepared to answer. I teach college women about things like sexual assault and harassment, and some have come forward to tell me about their experiences, seeking advice. While running my dissertation study I had a woman who was recently divorced ask me for dating advice because she had a sexual encounter with a man she met online that was far from the romance she had hoped for. And now here in Nepal women who are stigmatized for sleeping with men before marriage are asking how to “dump him back.” I do the best I can at fielding these questions, but I often feel weak in this aspect because my training is not as a counselor or clinician—I just disseminate information and do the training on proper contraceptive use, and then run the research to see whether or not it is effective. But I suppose as I gain more experience in doing these types of interventions I’ll feel more confident in offering advice to women who confide in me.
In other news, I had a meeting with one of the directors of the Marie Stopes Nepal INGO. They are an international family planning organization with headquarters out of London. The Nepal Marie Stopes runs 59 clinics around the country that provide a variety of services—safe abortion, vasectomies, HIV testing, contraceptives, etc. I made friends with an American woman who just started working for them in November. Her background is in business, so she is helping them to develop business plans so that they can remain self-sustainable.
The director I met with today has a background in community health and development and runs their adolescent health program. He told me he was responsible for implementing sexual education into the curriculum in public schools in Kathmandu. We had lunch (noodle soup and tea) and talked about my project and the work of Marie Stopes.
He then asked me who I want for president—Clinton or Obama. He asked who is more likely to do away with the Global Gag Rule more quickly once taking office. Very good question! Like the Family Planning Association of Nepal, the day Bush took office and reinstated the Global Gag Rule, Marie Stopes lost its funding from USAID because it offers abortion services. Mother Fucker! Luckily they were able to get funding from other sources to make up the difference, but here’s another example of an organization that was directly affected by Bushie’s abortion stance. I promised him that I would send a letter to the new president (assuming it’s either Obama or Clinton) and ask them to do away with the Global Gag Rule immediately. But I wonder how many organizations worldwide were affected by the rule. The couple I have been dealing with in Nepal are big enough and funded enough by other sources (such as International Planned Parenthood Foundation) to remain open, but other smaller organizations around the world have had to close down because a majority of their funding was from USAID. And what does that mean in terms of the number of women (and men) who can no longer get reproductive health services? Not just abortions, but condoms and other contraceptives…and, therefore, how many women will have unwanted pregnancies and perhaps do unsafe abortions? How many people will put themselves at risk for HIV because they no longer have easy access to condoms?
Thank you, Mr. President.
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