Hidden Pockets is taking the conversation on sexual and reproductive health mainstream
Sexual and reproductive health are essential services, especially for women. However, it is engulfed in stigma and taboos that make it difficult for women to find proper care and treatment.
After experiencing such a situation, Jasmine Lovely George, a lawyer from Delhi, decided to start Hidden Pockets to help women find non-judgemental medical facilities that provide sexual and reproductive health services like abortion.
Hidden Pockets began in 2015 as a mapping project to identify non-judgmental medical facilities for women to seek abortions, and was officially instated in 2016 in Bengaluru. Today, it is a platform that caters to all sexual and reproductive health concerns. It is a referral platform that helps women find medical facilities and offers a multilingual WhatsApp careline that offers counselling – medical, legal, and psychological – to women who have queries about care and/or facilities.
They get queries about abortions, termination facilities, medical and legal options, periods, PCOS, and other reproductive and sexual health issues. In the last couple of months, they have observed an increase in queries about mental health, and they are working with a network of doctors and counsellors to refer people. It also features stories of women sharing their experiences.
A tech enthusiast, Jasmine has been a sexual and reproductive health advocate for seven years. With Hidden Pockets, she is trying to envision a tech-based solution in the sexual and reproductive health sector. She also engages in policy-level work and interventions on sexual and reproductive health in the UN, and other national and international organisations.
The story behind Hidden Pockets
Having undergone a humiliating experience at a clinic while looking for sexual and reproductive health services, Jasmine realised how single women were treated in the country for accessing services.
“I was rebuked and humiliated. I was surprised by the fact that even as somebody who is a lawyer and aware of their rights, they still had the power on me. I realised that people don't see young women or single women as clients, and if this is the situation in Delhi, I don't know what's happening in the rest of the country. So Hidden Pockets started as a mapping project,” says Jasmine.
Hidden Pockets now has a strong presence in seven cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Jaipur, Kolkata, and Kohima – where the team of five has physically audited public health clinics that they refer to women. The platform sees a flow of queries from 25 cities across the country, majorly Tier II cities.
Post the 2012 Delhi gangrape incident when everybody was talking about installing CCTV technology, Jasmine saw that no one was asking women about what solutions they would like. “We thought that the solution must be something that is driven by women and helps women in their own comfort zone. You cannot just ask women to go out and start demanding their rights on the road. It needs to be something very personal which also played a role in creating a platform for women.”
With online campaigns and conversations, Hidden Pockets is at the forefront of ensuring that women’s issues are heard. When the lockdown happened, they realised that sanitary napkins and abortions were not listed as essentials, and started online conversations to initiate change. Even during the Kerala floods in 2018, they battled to make sanitary napkins, condoms, and contraceptive pills to be made essential utilities.
“Every time we do this, we also get backlash. People don't believe that these are essentials. It's also because women are not part of the narrative – women are not seen as users, not seen as somebody who gets affected.
So we ensure that by doing all these campaigns and conversations that our concerns are also reaching and becoming a part of mainstream conversations and it results in policy change and demand change,” asserts Jasmine.
Challenges faced by single women
Single women seeking sexual and reproductive health services, particularly abortions, face a myriad of challenges due to stigma, judgemental behaviours, and unnecessary compliance measures like consent of parents.
“The panic with which a single person comes to us versus a married person – there is a huge difference in that,” says Jasmine.
Young single women aged 18-25, who mostly don’t have financial stability, are often harassed and humiliated by doctors and hospitals. They are asked to bring their parents or partners onboard or doctors refuse to provide termination services as there is a widespread assumption that single women cannot access abortions, explains Jasmine.
This leads to many women resorting to unsafe abortion practices. Women end up taking unnecessary amounts of abortion pills that work only if they are in the first trimester of the pregnancy. In second trimester pregnancies, surgeries are needed, and when women can’t access them and instead intake pills, it leads to bleeding and other consequences that might endanger their reproductive health.
An 18-year-old girl shared her story on the platform of an extremely painful termination. She did not know how to seek an abortion and was thrown from one hospital to another. She kept taking the wrong pills which led to profuse bleeding and in the end, she got an infection and had to seek multiple surgeries.
"Mostly these are big issues that single women go through. I am not saying married women don't go through challenges. They are sometimes asked to get their husbands onboard, which is legally not required. With married women, it’s also complicated because after a particular age, if you have a second child, there is the sex selection angle,” says Jasmine.
She suggests laws like the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill must be made more women-centric which is currently heavily doctor-centric and places a lot of power in their hands.
Mandatory sex education
Unsafe abortion practices, the wrong idea of sex and sexuality, and myths and taboos can be mitigated with access to the right information and education. The Hidden Pockets Collective, a network of the platform, helps in spreading awareness through workshops, podcasts, and online campaigns. Online and offline workshops are conducted in small cities and towns in regional languages with young people and out-of-school children in juvenile homes, rag picker’s children and others who might not have access to education.
With the discovery of ‘Bois Locker Room’, a private chat room where teenage boys sexualised underage girls, Jasmine believes that sex and consent education is the need of the hour.
“This is something that at Hidden Pockets we have been very clearly saying - criminalising and penalising young people, boys or girls is not effective at all. Even when we do sexuality education, we have been very clear that it has to be consent-centric, sex-positive. The problem is this whole exoticisation of porn,” Jasmine implores.
Even while conducting sexuality education with young boys and girls, they see that just the word ‘sex’ is associated with fear, because our conversations about sex are fear-centric, says Jasmine. This is due to the violence shown in porn.
“We have to create an alternative, even in the fantasy world, which is sex-positive, positive to all types of bodies, which is positive to consent,” says Jasmine.
On the policy level, Jasmine believes that comprehensive sexuality education must be made mandatory in the National Education Curriculum.
Edited by Kanishk Singh