Periodic campaigns on the benefits of condoms serve as essential reminders for responsibility and carefulness in sexual conduct. They are organized by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), an arm of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Anybody mindful of public campaigns may have come across posters that encourage the use of preventive rubber. Bus stops and railway stations in New Delhi are common places to find them.
Termed "Ek Achchi Aadat" (A Good Habit), the current campaign exhorts the habitual use of condoms. It uses four different posters to put across the message. I have highlighted sexism in private condom advertisements before, but clearly public notices have also fallen prey to it.
Take the following posters that are currently circulating in the city and are also available on the NACO website:
Poster 1 and Poster 2 have the common message – "Har Samajhdar Mard Ki Ek Achchi Aadat" (A Good Habit Of Every Intelligent Man). Does the use of condoms or the insistence on it make only the man intelligent? What does the use of condoms or the insistence on it make the woman then? Does it make her a rocket scientist? Or, an alien perhaps?
The absence of the woman in both these posters is a likely indication of the conservative attitude that society has towards women in India.
The use of condoms involves purchase, which is a public act. And unless a woman is buying condoms to make balloons, it is very likely that she will use it for sex. Now, that is assertion -- a woman is in the market to buy a small piece of rubber that is vital for the health of all humans, irrespective of gender. She may use it with her husband or with the man she met minutes ago.
In this age of Tinder, sex "inside" or "outside" marriage, and with "known" or "unknown" others is a reality in large parts of India and also in smaller pockets of Bharat. But the State is yet to wake up. Perhaps this explains the absence of women in public campaigns against Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).
It is not as if women are completely absent from the poster campaign. For instance, the other two posters from the current campaign do portray women:
Again, Poster 3 and Poster 4 have a common message -- "Ek Aadat Jo Badhaye Pyaar, Banaye Aapko Zimmedar" (A Habit That Intensifies Love, Makes You Responsible). The placement of the male figures in both posters is key to understand the marginalization of women, even if they are visible, when it comes to talking sex.
The woman in Poster 3 is riding pillion -- a position which makes her less of an actor in the immediate context of travel and in the larger context of setting the rules for sexual intercourse. Surely, a woman riding a two-wheeler is not that difficult to locate on the streets of New Delhi or elsewhere in the country.
The absence of an assertive female figure in the NACO posters ignores the fact that women have the right to insist upon the use of condoms...
If Poster 3 has the female figure to the left, then it switches position in Poster 4. The female figure is now to the right and the male figure to the left. Since most scripts run from left to right, is it a mere coincidence that the male figure takes the pole position once again when it comes to initiative on safe sex and therefore on sexual intercourse?
When a pattern of subordination of female agency and sexual intercourse is evident in all the posters, then it is likely that they are not coincidences. They reflect social anxieties about the sexual freedom of women. The absence of an assertive female figure in the NACO posters ignores the fact that women have the right to insist upon the use of condoms by their sexual partners. Thus, the message in the public campaign is not directly encouraging almost half the population to practice safe sex.
Next time NACO embarks on an awareness drive, it will perhaps be helpful to watch the campaign below. It is a funny and effective take on women and their right to safe sex.