I spoke with a group of volunteers from Pratisandhi on improving narratives linking investments in sexual and reproductive health (SRH) to wellbeing outcomes and enhanced access to education, social, and economic opportunity.
We structured the discussion on the life-cycle approach to SRH and focused on the age group of 14 to 19. The purpose was to understand experiences of those going into adolescence and the teens without a knowledge of SRH, the associated problems, the consequences in day-today lives, and enactment of decisions and choices regarding their own bodies and sexuality.
The outcomes and conclusions were very interesting.
The significance of sexuality and awareness of it begins at a very early age. Biological gender differences, incidents, words, adult behavior, and various prohibitions inform this awareness.
Without an understanding of SRH, experiencing puberty can include distrust, paranoia, isolation, depression, uncertainty, and emotional vulnerability.
Mostly sex education in India teaches the purpose of sex is for reproduction, something unpleasant but necessary, and not to be talked about. Other incentives for sex such as for display of love and affection, and pleasure are not discussed.
The lack of relevant information on sexuality and reproductive health does not help in deriving conclusions to inform choices and decisions. This has adverse effects on self-identity and maintaining healthy group and societal relationships. Adolescents pretend to understand the experience of puberty just to be a part of the groups and maintain societal relationships.
Enforced rules such as ‘no-touch’ in schools without a proper explanation or rationale serve to amplify misconceptions of behavior and relationships.
Lack of information results in adolescents and teens seeking answers and solutions on the internet and being more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse.
Misconceptions on sexuality lead to unhealthy assertiveness and behavior such as gender-based violence and rape.
Addressing these outcomes included;
Creating awareness on sexuality at a very early age. An example was the Dutch education system where since 2012, age-appropriate sex education—including gender identity issues—is compulsory in all Dutch schools. By age four, children discuss their bodies in class and teenage formal sex education focuses on having positive relationships, negotiating with partners, and using contraception.
Creating opportunities for parents and teachers to talk to children about gender and sexuality informed by age appropriate and effective material such as visuals, graphics, comics, and stories.
Comprehensive sexuality education which does not segregate between the different incentives for sex such as procreation, affection, and pleasure.
Enabling teachers to talk about sexuality and reproductive health in the classroom to adolescents and teens free of judgmental morality based on restrictive social norms and associated attitudes and behavior.
Creating awareness among parents on being aware of the needs and communicating with their children on sexuality, gender, and reproductive health through the various phases of childhood, puberty, adolescence, and teenage years. Ensure adequate resources and information, and counselling is available and accessible to parents.
Supporting an enabling environment for adolescents and teenagers to make informed choices regarding their sexuality and reproductive health. This involves consulting and communicating with young people rather than assuming ‘what’s good for them’.
These narratives are important since India is going through a time of opportunity characterized by a long demographic dividend… about 600 million people, more than half India’s population, are under 25 years old and they are set to change the world.
Thoughtful and deliberate investments in SRH are essential for a more capable workforce, better informed consumers who are starting families, and opportunities for young Indians to participate in and benefit from their country’s economic and development growth.