Photo by Miquel Llonch via Stocksy
For female travelers, navigating reproductive health issues in a foreign country can be a minefield. Covering everything from gynecologist recommendations to local stigma, the new open-source website wants to ensure fewer things get lost in translation.
The concept of Gynopedia is simple: It's an online, open-source, nonprofit health care database in the style of Wikipedia that offers women free information on a range of issues as they relate to different locations across the globe. You can search by city—say, Los Angeles, or Mumbai—and get specific pages with details on where to go for gynecological exams, emergency contraception, STI tests, and where to find abortion clinics. Each city's page is subdivided into categories (for example, "Contraception (Birth Control)"), which are then broken down into three sections: the laws and social stigmas around each topic, what to get and where to get it, and costs. There are also pages for advocacy and counseling, plus a list of additional resources and translations for most terms covered (in Korean, a suppository for a yeast infection is called "좌약," pronounced "jwa yak"; a pharmacy is an eczane in Turkish).
Currently, Gynopedia covers 67 cities in 48 countries in Africa, Asia, and North and South America. "The plan is to just keep extending its reach," says founder Lani Fried. "I want to have a Gynopedia page for as many cities as possible."
Fried came up with the idea last year while living in New York and planning an extended trip around Asia. "I suddenly realized that I was completely clueless on how I would deal with things like birth control in the dozen countries I would visit, if I had the need to," she says. "Or a pap smear. Or any access to sexual health care."
The San Francisco native, who currently lives in Hanoi, related these concerns to her experience living in other cities around the world; regardless of the culture, most women turn to word of mouth for knowledge and recommendations for sexual and reproductive health care. "I lived in Istanbul for a while a few years back, and I remembered how challenging it was to get a proper STD test there," Fried says. "And not just in Turkey: I have moved to and from a lot of different American cities, and have always had to do way too much research to gain information on what is basic but essential stuff."
Gynopedia aims to become a massive, digital word-of-mouth network, and it's especially useful for female travelers who might need to know their options for replacing a prescription on vacation, or whether tampons are easily found in San Salvador (yes, but only in certain stores). But the site is also targeting residents of these cities in the hope of providing a "one-stop" platform you can use to check out where your nearest women's clinic is, or how much an STI test costs.
Fried compiled the first pages herself, Wiki-style, focusing on cities she had lived in, starting with New York. She then began adding the metropolises she was visiting in Southeast Asia. The growth has been slow but steady—from 10 visitors per day when the site first launched in September to a daily average now in the hundreds. As her travels continued, Fried reached out to local women's organizations, Facebook groups, and NGOs dedicated to sexual and reproductive health care to help build more entries.
Lani Fried on her travels
The Asia Safe Abortion Partnership (ASAP), a network of activists, providers, and researchers working to advocate for improved access to safe abortion across Asia, was among the groups that replied. "We put Lani in touch with some of our connections in Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka," says Garima Shrivastava, ASAP's programs and communications officer, on the phone from Mumbai. "People with a progressive, like-minded approach to sex education and women's reproductive rights conducted firsthand research for the website's different sections and shared it with Lani. Now you have comprehensive pages on abortion laws in Karachi, or where to go for an STD exam in Manila."
While there's a particular focus on regions lacking comprehensive sexual health-care resources, it's not just women in developing countries who benefit from Gynopedia. Maggie Ryan, an American lawyer in London, used the site to learn how to get her IUD replaced. "My husband and I moved to the UK just after Gynopedia launched," she says, "and we weren't quite sure of how the health-care system for long-term contraception worked, or how to schedule appointments." The London page offered lots of information, including referrals, which Ryan describes as "super useful."
Ryan decided to add what she had learned from her personal experience, too, and contributed to the Istanbul page. "The website makes it a lot easier to plan and find resources, particularly if you're traveling," she says. "You never know what might happen—I've had friends on trips whose supplies of birth control were lost or stolen and they ended up having to spend a lot of time and energy finding out how to replace them. And I know from my own experience that dealing with medical stuff in a foreign country can be one of the most stressful things to go through. I'm glad Gynopedia exists."
But Gynopedia offers users something beyond convenience: independence. "Gynopedia is an empowering tool," Shrivastava says. "We're actually looking to integrate it on our platforms and social media channels. It's so important to have reliable sources to be able to make informed decisions."
I was completely clueless on how I would deal with things like birth control in the dozen countries I would visit, if I had the need to.
Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC), agrees. "Gynopedia could be a very interesting, useful resource for women, especially when traveling abroad. But it's also a good frame of reference if you're living in America today.
"These are really regressive times," she continues. "This administration is not only making abortion as difficult to access as possible throughout the country, but is also purposefully trying to hinder the use of contraception. There's an intent to control women's sexuality and bring us back to the 1950s, when we didn't have much control over our fertility or our bodies."
With Trump reinstating Ronald Reagan's 1984 Mexico City policy—the so-called "global gag rule," which denies US funding to nongovernmental organizations around the world if they offer, provide, or advise on abortion in their services—as well as Republican plans to defund Planned Parenthood and place other onerous restrictions on abortion and contraception access, a platform like Gynopedia can present a collective, grassroots way to stay aware, everywhere.
Historically, women's organizations and national unions have helped to raise awareness of women's issues, both in America and around the world, but these days, technology makes it possible for individuals to take direct action. As far as Fried knows, "no other site like Gynopedia exists," but more of its kind could easily pop up in the near future.
"Gynopedia offers a way to take action from home," Fried says. "When I started it, I was driven by the belief that women, and all people no matter their genders, should be able to make decisions about their own bodies. Whether they choose to become parents or have an abortion, to use birth control or not, the choice is theirs to make. Women's health decisions shouldn't be a political issue."
Fried acknowledges that as the site keeps growing, it might face pushback from organizations or governments, although that hasn't happened yet. "It's definitely on my mind," she says, "so I've begun talking to people about how this might be handled." She's also aware of the challenge of keeping content up-to-date and ensuring the quality of health-care providers recommended on the site. "The project isn't my full-time occupation, but I really, really care about it. My main goal now is to recruit more contributors so that we can grow into a full-on Wiki and always be current." To do that, she's put together a video to help people get started, as well as a Gynopedia guidelines page.
"It's crazy to me how you can find a gazillion sites on the top ten things to do or see when you visit a new place, but nothing about critical aspects of every woman's life," she says. "I want Gynopedia to change that."
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