New app breaks silence on sexual health in Iran

Hamdam is the first app providing information about sexual health in Persian (source: Soudeh Rad)
Hamdam is the first app providing information about sexual health in Persian (source: Soudeh Rad)

In Iran, talking about sex is still a taboo and there is little to no sexual education in schools. To help bridge the gap, an Iranian activist has launched Hamdam, the first Persian-language application that provides information about sexual health. Its target audience is women, who face some of the most serious risks.

Sexual education is not systematically taught in schools or even universities in Iran. As might be expected, Iranians living in low-income areas have even less access to information. According to our Observers, this lack of knowledge contributes to increased health risks, especially for women, and higher numbers of unwanted pregnancies.

According to a 2015 survey, more than 33 percent of boys and 27 percent of girls under the age of 18 in Iran have had sexual relations with a partner of the same or opposite sex.

Women take part in a rare workshop on sexual health run by the NGO Ctrl+S. (Ctrl+S Facebook)

“Anything related to women’s bodies is taboo”

Soudeh Rad, founder of the Hamdam app, is an Iranian women’s rights activist who lives in France. She says this app provides women with “information and services that are not forbidden in Iran, but that are not available because they are politically or socially taboo.”

In Iran, anything related to women’s bodies is taboo. I recognized that there was an urgent need for education about women’s sexual health, which gave me the idea for this app.

I decided to develop an app because the Iranian population is very young and the majority of them spend many hours every day looking at apps on their phones [Editor’s note: According to official statistics, 23.5 million Iranians, out of a population of 80 million, use internet on their phones]. I built it for Android systems because that is most common in Iran.

We designed this app to be very secure-- information stays in the host device. It also works without internet.

Women can use the app to track their monthly cycle and the duration of each period. (Photo provided by Soudeh Rad)

“When women know their bodies, they can take control of their lives”

Women can use this app to track their monthly cycles as well as their moods. By comparing the two, women can better understand how fatigue or feeling angry or emotional might relate to what is happening within their body.

When women know their bodies, they are better able to take control of their lives. For example, they can plan sexual activity around their cycle to help avoid unwanted pregnancies (and by taking extra precautions, for example, when they are ovulating.)

Hamdam also provides information about different contraceptive methods. Moreover, there is a lot of information about sexually transmitted diseases and the app also offers advice on when they should go see a doctor.

“We are seeing increasing rates of breast cancer in Iran”

This app also encourages women to examine their breasts regularly for any signs of breast cancer. We guide women through the process because, while the mainstream media is starting to talk about the need for regular check ups, they don’t explain how to do it properly.

We are seeing increasing rates of breast cancer in Iran. [Editor’s note: Each year, more than 10,000 Iranian women are diagnosed with breast cancer].

Women’s rights

We also provide information on basic women’s rights, including women’s rights within a marriage. We explain what domestic violence is and tell women how to report it if they are a victim. We also tell them what to do if they are raped, emphasizing how important it is to report the crime. It’s also critical for rape victims to refrain from washing themselves so that the authorities can collect DNA evidence.

The app also has a special button that connects users with a local helpline.

Ctrl+S provides a rare workshop on sexual health in Iran. (Photo: Ctrl+S Facebook)

“What we really need are preventative measures”

Dr. Omid Zamani is a researcher who studies AIDs and HIV in Iran. He agrees that many Iranians have little to no knowledge about sexual health.

According to a survey by researchers, only 25 percent of Iranians have enough information about their sexual health and STDs.

There is hardly any sex education in Iran because sex is such a taboo topic.

The very few NGOs work who do work in this field focus on high-risk populations like addicts and sex workers. Moreover, I find that they most work with people who have already fallen victim to this lack of knowledge-- for example, woman with unwanted pregnancies or people who are HIV-positive or have STDs.

What we really need are preventative measures. We should start teaching children about their bodies and sexual health at a young age.

The need is most pressing in low-income communities, which tend to be more conservative and, thus, are even more adverse to conversations about sex. We are seeing some improvements in this field. For example, there are a few different small NGOs like “Ctrl S” that run workshops on sexual health in low-income communities. The problem is that development is slow in this field, one issue being that NGOs focused on sexual health often find it difficult to find funding.

The NGO Ctrl+S holds a workshop for women in a mosque near Tehran. (Facebook)

“I remain hopeful because we are seeing some improvements”

I think that initiatives like this app could be useful if it really reaches the population. We’ll have to wait and see [Editor’s note: Soudeh says that Hamdam has been downloaded more than 18,000 times so far], but I remain hopeful because we are seeing some improvements.

One thing that gives me hope is that the average level of education is increasing in Iran, especially amongst women [Editor’s note: 54 percent of university students in Iran are women].