Feature piece by Shruthi DeVisser
1. What made you want to focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights/Why do you feel addressing it is important?
I am primarily a researcher and activist on issues relating to gender and peacebuilding. In 2019, my friend and Founder Director of the Arka Initiative, Manisha Dissanayaka, approached me with an idea for an initiative to raise more awareness on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) issues and tangibly engage in communities where there is a lack of dialogue and awareness. I was immediately drawn to this and came on board as a director. What began as an idea quickly became a thriving initiative doing important work under the able leadership of Manisha and an incredibly accomplished and committed team.
This work’s importance was further confirmed to us once the team hit the ground and worked in multiple communities across the country. Basic information about SRHR became lifestyle-changing information for many of these women. SRHR is a basic human right that is significant to our human bodies and their flourishing. A lack of knowledge about menstruation, sanitation, and contraception leads to multiple challenges that can be easily avoided. As a democratic country, it is the right of our people, both men and women, to have access to information and options.
2. What role should the church play in this discussion?
‘The body’ is spoken about in the Bible and in Christian dialogues often. It is often cited in reference to the importance of keeping the body holy and sanctified.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies”- 1 Corinthians 6: 19- 20.
We often think about this verse in terms of keeping the body away from sin. But honouring God with our bodies also means making sure that it is well taken care of. What does that mean? It means exercising, eating healthy food, and regular sleep. Additionally, it also means things like regular visits to a gynaecologist (whether you are sexually active or not) and understanding your reproductive system and its health as components of honouring our bodies as well.
The church should begin by talking about this in its youth groups and women’s groups. For example, tests such as Pap smears need to be regularly taken by women 30 and above. This increases the chance of early detection of cervical cancer. Youth groups also need to focus on the basic physical needs and dilemmas young people may have. Young girls could benefit greatly by learning about menstruation and bodily changes in the safe environment of the church. It is our culture that has promoted these topics as taboo. In that context, young people’s learning about this comes from friends, the Internet and other pop culture references. All these sources can be questionable and misdirecting.
We have to remember that talking about these topics does not mean merely talking about sexual activity. SRHR is a wide-ranging subject that needs to be demystified and de-stigmatized, and the church can play a significant role in modelling what healthy and age-appropriate conversations on these issues look like. Whether we like it or not, the next generation is growing up on the Internet and on social media. They are being bombarded with information on these topics. Would we rather not have this conversation in the safe space of our churches?
3. Does something need to change about the way we discuss it within the church/ has the church failed in the area of addressing SRHR?
I think the church and our culture, in general, have misunderstood dialogue about SRHR as an endorsement of sexual activity among young people. SRHR is primarily the knowledge of how best to protect and increase the wellbeing of your body. Within this, there are age-appropriate conversations that trained, and responsible adults can have with young people.
Psalm 139:13- 14 says: “For You have formed my inward parts; you have covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.”
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, every bone, every muscle, every blood vessel. Instead of shunning and shaming constructive dialogue about the body and the sexual health of an individual, we need to learn to talk about it as part of the ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ creation that is man and woman. We need to move away from the idea that talking about SRHR means promoting abortion, contraception or premarital sex. As I mentioned before, SRHR is so much more than that. But these are topics that young people are talking about, making choices about. These are topics that married couples are making choices about. If the church is not leading these conversations, then how can the church expect its young people to be influenced by what the church is advocating for?
4. What is the most severe consequence of this failure? (Only if there is a significant failure)
If the church is concerned about its young people, and not just their spiritual well-being but also their physical well-being, it is imperative that these conversations are had. One severe consequence of this failure is that young people in their most formative years are making decisions about their bodies without the input of the church. Another is that young people, especially women, may be battling challenges with their bodies without the support of responsible adults they can turn to. The Church needs to be a place that they can turn to for answers and for support. Another example is the well-being of new mothers. How many churches talk about postnatal depression? As a mother and father stand at the pulpit dedicating their newborn baby, how many of us are thinking about the emotional health of the mother whose entire life has experienced an upheaval? This, too, is SRHR.
5. Why is it important for Christian youth to be a party to this discourse?
Christian youth need to be part of public discourse on topics that affect the lives of all people. They cannot be limited to the church and the matters of the church. At the intersection of the church and the world, there is a lot of work to be done. Christian youth, with the correct guidance and modelling, can lead the conversations on issues such as SRHR; conversation-based not only belief and values but also knowledge and research.
I am reminded of the bleeding woman in the bible, having found no cure for 12 years, bravely and with faith touched Jesus’ cloak for healing. She was deemed ceremonially unclean. For 12 years, she was in her own version of quarantine. No one could help; no one would go near her. She had a haemorrhage: incurable at that point in history. While the story of the bleeding woman is primarily one about faith and God’s healing, it also speaks to us about how we shun the unknown and the uncomfortable. This woman was suffering every day. While no human could have healed her, many could have offered her support and comfort.
The church has a two-fold role to play. One is to become knowledgeable about these issues and facilitate open dialogues in safe spaces; the other is to act as a place of support and comfort for those who are struggling with their sexual and reproductive health. If the church is leading the way and modelling this, it can influence not just its congregation but society at large.