Features

Curating safe spaces for dialogue: Arka Circles

By Jithendri Gomes

The Arka Initiative held its second “Arka Circles” in Colombo last Saturday at the Royal College Union Skills Centre. Led by a team of young women and men, Arka aims to create greater access to knowledge on Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) and curate safe spaces for women and men to dialogue, share ideas, and learn about SRH. In their short span of existence, Arka has held three workshops in Colombo and Moratuwa, conducted a session at the University of Colombo for Hashtag Generation, and are in preparation for more in the coming weeks in English, Sinhala, and Tamil, both in and out of Colombo. The initiative seeks to provide tangible support for the challenges surrounding SRH with a keen focus on not just the physical but also the psychosocial, emotional, and social.

The “Arka Circles” are a little different to your average workshops. Knowing the stigma, shame, and discomfort that usually surround SRH conversations, these circles are created with the aim to provide intimate, safe, and comfortable settings in which to talk and learn about SRH. Young mentors lead the topics of the day in small circles and attempt to create an environment that is conducive to openly sharing questions and concerns.
The areas discussed at this Arka Circle were STDs, rumors surrounding SRH, contraception and pregnancy, and the HPV vaccine. Before the mentors began their circles, a team member who is a counseling psychologist conducted a short session on how stigmas prevent individuals accessing services and medical help and the importance of normalising conversations around SRH.
This proved to be a good start and encouragement to what would be an open dialogue about SRH. The Arka Circle drew a diverse group of participants across gender, ethnicity, language, and socio-economic backgrounds. Because of this, conversations around SRH proved to be more nuanced and wide-reaching. Those who attended were enthusiastic to learn about SRH in a way that was not limited to the biological aspects of it but also focused on relevant emotional and social issues.
At the end of the Arka Circle, Dr. Suranga Hettipathirana, a gynecologist at the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital and a senior advisor to the Arka Initiative, took questions from the entire group. The questions were dropped anonymously into a box throughout the event. This turned out to be an excellent opportunity for those who attended the Arka Circle to clarify doubts, express concern, and ask questions from a practicing medical health professional of this calibre.
Dr. Hettipathirana approached all the questions with a lot of enthusiasm and was able to model how medical professionals should approach and discuss these issues, especially with young people at times in their lives where they go through many changes, making crucial decisions surrounding SRH. The questions ranged from concerns of how often one could get an STD to the menstrual cycle to whether there was a “safe period” to have sex without getting pregnant and IUDs.
For many who attended, the knowledge that was shared was new and immensely helpful. Many of the participants were surprised at how little they knew about SRH and commented on how important it was that more people were made aware.
Although this Arka Circle was able to touch on just three topics from a subject that is vast, you can expect more Arka Circles in the future attempting to tackle various different aspects of SRH. Every week, the Arka Initiative also conducts a question and answer session on a selected topic on their Instagram story. They also engage with wider society by way of a weekly video series on the interplay between SRH and psycho-social issues.
Arka, with a growing team, is excited to launch more projects in the near future related to their three main pillars of engagement – the “Aeya Initiative”, the “Padanama” programme, and the “Prana Series”. A “sustainable sanitation project” and a PCOS support group are also in the pipeline.
In an effort to provide quick and reliable support, their website also has a tab for urgent questions you may have regarding any problems with SRH you may be encountering. You will receive a confidential response within 24 hours. To find out more about their work and future projects, visit www.arkainitiative.org or their Facebook and Instagram pages.