In many countries around the world, cultural and religious taboos create environments that silence women and gender minorities and restrict access to health information.
But a team of graduate students within the School of Interactive Computing have explored how technology can help circumvent these barriers so that women can engage in freer communication on stigmatized health issues.
Hannah Tam, Karthik Bhat, and Priyanka Mohindra conducted research to study how safe spaces could be curated to support 35 women of Indian origin in discussing subjects that are otherwise considered taboo.
Neha Kumar, an associate professor who teaches jointly with the School of Interactive Computing and the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, served as advisor to the students. Kumar is the director of the Tandem Lab, which works to explore cultural taboos and investigate their impact on health and well-being among women and gender minorities internationally.
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During the two-week study, the researchers provided the group with discussion prompts on stigmatized topics such as menstrual health, sexual wellbeing, fitness, body image, diet and exercise, and mental health.
“Taboos persist because Indian culture is still largely patriarchal,” Bhat said. “The cultural norm is that you don’t talk about these things with other people, you don’t talk about them with other genders, you don’t talk about these things outside the home. It becomes hard to seek care where it’s necessary and community where it’s necessary.”
The restrictions of societal taboos escalate when adolescent girls begins their menstrual cycles, Mohindra said.
“Everything about how they’re treated changes,” she said. “They’re not able to go to temples because it’s considered impure. They’re not allowed to serve food or go into the kitchen. Nobody should know you’re going through that, even though it’s a natural process.”
“Anything that has to do with intimacy or anything sexual and a woman is involved, that’s looked down at no matter what age you are,” she said. “Girls are afraid to ask their mothers about these things.”
Tam said she and her colleagues used legitimate peripheral participation (LLP) as a framework to analyze the social learning that took place in the Whats App group they established for the study. The LLP framework creates social interactions among community members that enable them to share knowledge and experiences while allowing other members to observe and learn without actively participating.
“We found that learning happened at all levels, which was applicable to both core members and peripheral members, or members who might not have been as active in the group,” Tam said.
The group of women participated with partial anonymity, which also provided a sense of security and comfort to most users. Using WhatsApp only required members to provide their phone numbers, which helped them conceal their identities to minimize the risk of facing judgment in their communities.
The group conducted follow-up interviews with 10 of the 35 participants and found that some had started connecting with other group members offline, which Tam said was a step forward from where they had started.
“People found relief in being able to talk openly,” Tam said. “One member said she hadn’t felt comfortable saying the word ‘period’ aloud — even among her close friends.
“As members were unpacking their experiences with taboos outside the group, that led to a lot of members questioning traditional systems and social structures.”
The goal of the project, Bhat said, was not about making a direct impact on the health of the women participating. Instead, the researchers aimed to find ways in which social media platforms could enable sharing of sensitive information and equip participants with the ability to navigate cultural barriers.
“Our findings suggested that this space and our intervention gave them the avenue to learn how to engage on stigmatized health topics and then take these conversations out into the world,” he said.
“There needs to be dedicated efforts to educating at various levels so that people who are in positions of power, such as governments and healthcare authorities, recognize and address the challenges in health communication that we saw, and work to address them. This is critical for women’s health and wellbeing worldwide. But given that these problems exist and are not going away anytime soon, how can technology support us in addressing this gap now?”