So the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India has launched an adolescent health resource kit that includes information on sexual and reproductive health, mental health, violence, substance use, non-communicable diseases and nutrition. More specifically it promises to dispel myths around taboos like menstruation and homosexuality.
Saathiya, as the kit is called, is part of the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram, and has a complementary mobile app called Saathiya Salah and a toll-free helpline. Peer educators are being trained across India to use the kit to interact with adolescents in both rural and urban areas, and generate demand for adolescent health services. The mobile app and helpline will be useful for those adolescents who would rather clarify their doubts confidentially.
By all means, a much needed venture coming as it does from the government, which has had a mixed record in ensuring sex education in schools and colleges. Especially the fact that the kit says same-sex sexual attraction is ‘normal’ has had people trying to read into this move an intention to do something about Section 377, Indian Penal Code. Even if that were the case, what about the likely effectiveness of the kit itself?
A lot will depend on how the peer educators are trained, how they are enabled to overcome their own cultural inhibitions, and how much freedom they will have to talk about taboos in different social environments. Will the gatekeepers – parents, teachers, community elders – let them do the talking needed?
Several NGOs like Thoughtshop Foundation in Kolkata, CREA and TARSHI in Delhi, and Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) have been engaged in talking about gender, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, and HIV with adolescents. They may agree that the bigger challenge is not in talking about matters sexual with the adolescents, most of whom are naturally curious and willing to learn and unlearn. In fact, the adolescents may also already have much more information, even if it is incomplete and distorted, than their parents or teachers would like to believe.
The real challenge is in not letting the gatekeepers obstruct the flow of accurate and nuanced information to the youngsters. So perhaps we need resource kits to address the beliefs and anxieties of the adults around gender, sex and sexuality; moreover to skill them as many of them want to talk to their children about these issues but don’t know how to.
In this issue of Varta, read How Carrot Grass Made Me Sexual, which also touches on the subject of sex talk. The candour in the story may even be disturbing. In contrast is the situation of a middle aged friend of mine who is sexually active and has recently experienced a problem in the genitals. The problem in itself is not severe but has caused quite a bit of anxiety and stress. Not the least because he has been unable to talk about it to any one at home, and has had to go about doctor visits and medical tests on the sly.
It does seem as if the need of the hour is a saathiya for adults – not just parents and teachers, but also government functionaries, politicians, police personnel, lawyers and judges.
Main photo credit: Pawan Dhall (photograph is representative in nature; it was taken in Hyderabad in 2014 – call the number given on the poster at your own risk!)