KOLKATA: The new draft of the National Youth Policy released in May this year, which was envisaged as a 10-year plan in 2014, suggests that trainers be appointed in every school to instruct students and teachers on sexual and reproductive health.

In most states the proposal hasn't yet seen fruition in most states, with this important work left to scattered organisations and individuals who provide the needed information via workshops and the internet.

One such organisation is Our Voix, which has been working to prevent child abuse for four years now, and conducts workshops and designs resource materials for teachers to use for instruction on sexual and reproductive health. According to founder director Megha Bhatia,

"Currently we are working with primary schools, and we have reached about 3,000 MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) school teachers. Earlier these teachers were very uncomfortable to talk on subjects like private parts… but after our workshops we have seen an increase in their confidence levels. Not only do they talk about it, but they also go on to conduct workshops with the children."

Bhatia said their resource materials, which come in the form of animated movies, comic books, etc, "provide the vocabulary not just to children, but to teachers and stakeholders so that they can start the conversation on topics like sex education."

She recalls one particular student, who after taking a workshop, with the help of other students wrote a manual on cybersafety. "Children, once given the opportunity, can do wonders," she says.

The World Health Organisation defines sexual health as follows: "A state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected, and fulfilled."

Bhatia thinks this nuanced understanding is lacking amongst Indians, and the absence of conversation makes the problem worse.

"The first and foremost thing is that people don't even know about the importance of it – like how powerful it is to teach a child that they have the power to say 'no'."

She recalls the brief period shortly into the Modi government that sex education was banned in a few Indian states in 2014 by then Health Minister Harsh Vardhan. "And the reasons they were giving were very stupid – they said that the number of pregnancies will increase or it is going to harm our culture. Whereas these are things we can talk about easily."

She adds, "Sex education is not a luxury, it is our constitutional right. If you interpret Article 21, right to education doesn't just mean that you teach math, English and science – it means that it is our right to learn about our bodies too."

"There are several small little topics where you can start the conversation," says Jaya Jaiswal, sexuality educator and counsellor, who also says the understanding children have of their own bodies is sparse.

"It could be a simple thing like how to clean your penis, or how to clean your vulva. Even using the correct names for your genitals. You should teach them the right words. Because if you do that, abusers will know that the child can explain the right term to the parents."

According to Jaiswal, young people have already started the conversation on sexual and reproductive health, but lack the knowledge to do so adequately. And this is where she believes that parent/s or guardian/s play a vital role.

"It is definitely the youth that is bringing the change. Adults are not ready to understand several parts of this. They might be understanding of concepts like STIs (sexually transmitted infections), but the concept of consent and boundaries are not digestible to them because they are not used to it."

The lens and context with which children and adults will seek out such information are bound to be different from one another.

"Youth are more focused on having relationships and prevention of STIs. They are very much scared about what is going to happen if something goes wrong. Because there is no proper information regarding what is okay and what is not okay," Jaiswal tells The Citizen.

"Even a woman does not know where they urinate from and where the penis enters – there is a whole lot of confusion on that. Or even where their menstrual blood comes from. They do not know their anatomy themselves. How are they going to guide the person they are in a relationship with?"

And the silence doesn't stem from prudishness alone.

"Very often children are not considered as individual entities enough for us to teach them such things. The power dynamic here is the major block – wherein as adults we get to choose what to teach and what not to teach the children," says Bhatia.

She adds however that in her experience, teachers have been welcoming and receptive to these conversations. She has interacted with teachers eager to teach their wards about sexual health, but who are apprehensive about how to broach the subject with the children.

"They are afraid that in teaching the children, they might accidentally use the wrong terminology, which may result in the students getting a wrong idea. So if we give the right training to the teachers, then the knowledge would have reached the children too."

"Information is available online, but the adequate resources are not there for teaching," she explains. For instance, Jaiswal's organisation conducted a pilot study with 40 MCD schools where they enquired if the schools had any books on body safety or cyber safety. "None of them had any," she says.

She adds that the adolescent reproductive and sexual health clinics, or ARSH centres, launched by the Union government 2006, are largely inactive due to the non-hiring of trained doctors.

Bhatia also makes a point to speak of all of the illegal and harmful content that a child is liable to stumble upon, should they independently search for answers to questions on sexuality and sexual health. "All this CSAM (child sexual abuse material) content is available on pornographic websites, and for that matter even on platforms like Instagram and Facebook there are links to these websites."

She suggests that the way to navigate this danger is to make it a subject at a national level, or at the state level. She takes the example of the government sanctioned videos on Covid on television that started doing the rounds in the first wave of the pandemic.

"So why not that the government uses these platforms that the government has already made, to spread the content? I think if there is a mandatory curriculum, and if the content will be available on government websites and different schools, it will help the children… It isn't only the responsibility of the teachers, even at the policy level we require changes… Teachers want to teach, but they do not have the resources or the guidelines to teach the subject."

Meanwhile the media continues to sexualise young people, making educative efforts all the more important.

"If you look around, every ad, every marketing strategy, is all around sex. The women are sexualised, the children are sexualised. Because it sells," says Jaiswal.

Both Bhatia and Jaiswal agree that the repercussions of not having accessible discourse on sexual and reproductive health are serious and often long-term.

"Very often what happens is that a child has been going through abuse for two or three years, but they are not able to raise their voice because they do not know that what is happening to them is wrong," says Bhatia.

"The biggest thing is prevention of child sexual abuse, and it is very common amongst boys and girls," says Jaiswal, adding that children who were abused often grow up with behavioural issues and a warped understanding of sex, which reflects in their relationships as well. "0-7 years, whatever memories you make as a child, it is going to come in your adulthood." Therefore she stresses that a better understanding of one's body is important to be able to avoid such difficulties.

"The body is so intelligent," says Jaiswal. "We actually don't understand the importance of the body and what it does for us. We need to be more connected to the body, and understand the signals that the body is giving to us." She believes that children can inherently sense safe and unsafe people and their touches, but don't often have the words or the experience to express it.

According to Jaiswal, children's conditioning when it comes to consent is skewed from a very young age.

"What happens when a guest comes home, and the child does not want to sit in their lap, the parents force them. The parents tell them to dance and sing in front of the guests, even if they don't want to."

She says further that very often parents will force feed their children even if the child insists that they are full; adults will tickle children in jest beyond the point that the child has asked them to stop, because the adult knows it is safe and considers it funny, whereas the child may not feel so and may be trying to express the same.

"There doesn't need to be any other reason other than the fact that the child is uncomfortable," she says, explaining that children's feelings of comfort and discomfort, whether or not clearly spelled out, must be respected. And the flouting of these boundaries sets a precedent for the children's futures.

Parents need to inculcate these behaviours and boundaries in themselves, and only then can they teach the children, says Jaiswal. "Children don't learn from listening, they just learn through seeing. Many people are uncomfortable and it is okay. It is conditioning and it is generational." She feels it is the prerogative of the parents to learn these concepts so as to be able to teach it accurately to their children.

"The urgency is there. If you are not going to answer your child's questions, Google is going to answer them. And Google does not give you the whole fact."

The WHO in its report on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health states that, "For many adolescents who need sexual and reproductive health services, such as appropriate information, contraception and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, these are either not available or are provided in a way that makes adolescents feel unwelcome and embarrassed."

The conversation on sexual and reproductive health appears to have begun, but the awareness is taking years to get through these barriers. Bhatia takes solace in the fact that the process of change is at least underway. "At least the conversations on this subject have begun. Speaking of ten years ago, nobody spoke of sexual violence and harrassment – but it is still very scattered."

"The future way forward is when all the authorities come together and develop a holistic curriculum on all this… It should reach out to every child. A lot has been done, but a lot still needs to be done."