The health ministry has turned its attention, and laudably so, to the 253 million adolescents growing up in contemporary India, many of whom are struggling to find answers to the questions thrown at them by their rapidly changing bodies.
What does it mean to feel attraction for members of the opposite, or same, sex? How does menstruation affect the body? Is masturbation a sinful activity? What does it mean to have safe sex? These are some of the questions that are going to be addressed by peer educators, called "saathiyas", who will be taking up focused outreach activities in the coming days, a report in The Indian Express said.
At the release of the Saathiya Resource Kit and Saathiya Salah, a mobile app which can be downloaded from the Google play-store, the health ministry outlined its plan to have 1.6 lakh peer educators on the field to answer queries from teenagers and to also impart life lessons to them. These educators would be taking on the task voluntarily, for a non-monetary payment worth ₹50 disbursed in the form of "a monthly magazine subscription or mobile recharge or any other means decided by the state".
Many of the topics in the resource kit, which will be distributed under a nationwide health programme for young people called Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), pertain to issues considered taboo among Indian families.
For example, not only does the kit claim that sexual attraction for members of the opposite sex is a fact of life, but similar feelings for members of one's own sex are just as "normal". While such advice is progressive and reassuring, it goes against the grain of the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which condemns any form of sexual intercourse "against the order of nature". With the health ministry teaching adolescents to be comfortable with their feelings for one another, though these may run contrary to socially prescribed modes of behaviour, the Centre, especially the law and home ministries, will hopefully take a clearer stand on the law against homosexuality by reading down the offending section of the IPC.
The kit also tackles the issue of reproductive health, especially the use of contraceptives, headlong and with unusual complexity. Apart from imparting information about HIV and sexually transmissible diseases, it explains basic facts about pregnancy and abortion, admitting thereby that teenage sexual encounters or pregnancies are not as uncommon as society would like to believe. There are also clear instructions about what consent means: a no is a no is a no, under any circumstances, says the kit.
Menstruation, another forbidden topic among Indian families that has lead to severe drop-out among young girls from schools, is also discussed with surprising maturity.
Apart from engaging with specific issues of health and hygiene, the kit reportedly tries to change the way masculinity and femininity are perceived by young people, most often due to conditioning since their birth. Boys, therefore, are always given a wide berth to act like boys, while girls are expected to be sugar and spice and everything nice. Whoever deviates from this script is taunted as a sissy or a tomboy. That the kit tries to remove such stigma from the minds of adolescents is a step towards instilling notions of gender justice among the population from early on.
Compulsory sex education in Indian schools remains a contentious issue on which the various stakeholders — educators, parents, and even the students themselves — remain divided. In the absence of such holistic programmes, the Saathiya Resource Kit is one of the most effective ways in which the state can work with young people and inform them about the truths of life early on, in the hope that they may become better citizens in the future. The bigger challenge, however, may be the families these children come from, who may not be receptive to their newfound ideas and wisdom. A health programme to educate adolescents is not going to be fully successful unless the parents and carers of the children are equally involved in it.
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