The language of sexuality that we use at The YP Foundation has evolved over the last few years as our understanding of what the multiple facets of and interconnections within sexuality, gender, rights and health are. It’s been a challenging process and our knowledge of the same has been challenged, redefined, questioned and re-invented. The most important learning principle is that there is little that is static. Our key principles remain the same, but how those are defined and applied is a continuous learning process.
Over the last 2 years our work has been directed towards advocating for young people’s sexual right as a human right. Certain key principles that have been recognized are:
- We believe that sexuality and expression of sexuality is intrinsic to each individual
- Recognize that sexuality is a normal and important part of all people’s lives and while different people have different understandings and ways of expressing their sexuality, all people should experience their bodies and sexuality in a positive and fulfilling manner.
-Recognize that gender is a fluid concept and gender roles are based on narrow societal constructs. Every individual has the right to choose and ascribe to different gender and/or sexual identities.
- Respect, and not violate, other people’s bodies and personal spaces, laying emphasis on the importance of consent in relationships.
- Recognize that different people have different body types and address existing stereotypes relating to body types, sexuality & notions of what is attractive.
- Respect their bodies and take proper care of their bodies with respect to nutrition, exercise, sexual health and get regular health checkups.
- Recognize the importance of accessing correct information from reliable sources, leading to informed decision making.
Along with any sort of work comes a tag, a tendency to define and interpret where certain actions, event or piece of work fits in. For The YP, this process was not a conscious process, but we found a space, where we feel our work very naturally fit.
Language here again became important. What are our politics and our stands? What language and with what words do we speak? Who do we speak on behalf of? Do we identify ourselves with any movement? Specifically in relation to our work with sexuality, how do we ensure that our work and also language is culturally appropriate-or is that even necessary?
Another question was of our engagement with social issues, with registration came the tag of NGO- a ‘not for profit registered foundation’. Words such as social change, social justice, Advocates, Activists entered our vocabulary and concept notes.
The term youth activism has been used to describe our work in multiple arenas, both internally and externally. But what does that mean, specifically in the context of work around sexuality and gender, how is activism interpreted when placed in the milieu of urban issues and people? These are some of the questions that this series of article hopes to explore.
When you grow up in urban India like I have, it’s almost like growing up with two identities at the same time. The first is where in your own world, you are trying to establish yourself in a society that traditionally doesn’t really listen to young people.
And then you meet this second world, and realize that you’re part of a population of 315 million people in India, who are between 10 and 24 years of age. And the statistics that define and describe this demographic that you are a part of, are worrying.
Population Council did a National Study on ‘Youth in India’ in 2006-2007 to discover that of a total population of over 50,000 young people, only 15% of young people have access to information from their parents or teachers on any kind of sexuality education. By 18, 28% of Indian women will have given birth to a child and 49% will be married. Of 2.5 million people in India who are HIV+, 50% of all new infections take place amongst young people between 15-24 years of age.
I live in an era with 1/3rd of the world’s population constituting young people. The urgent need of addressing their right to services, information and healthcare is clear. Let’s stop there. You begin to wonder therefore, why we are not involved with policies and programmes that affect our lives and why our rights are not considered important enough to invest in. Especially when we know this world cannot afford the financial and public health burden and risk of not doing so.
Almost 73% of young girls in India have misconceptions about modes of HIV transmission and Comprehensive Sexuality Education is banned in 7 states across the country. In this century, these cannot be justifiable reasons anymore for why young people do not have access to comprehensive health services or information. Often when we talk about education, we need to understand that issues of violence, abuse, harm reduction, poverty, sexuality, climate, equity, culture and norms impact different young people differently. We need to empower young people to make informed decisions, so they are best placed to negotiate vulnerabilities that impact them.
There is something fundamentally incorrect, with health and policy systems, with governments that put the idea of shame, silence and taboo into a young child’s mind by virtue of the lack of education they give him or her on basic issues regarding their body, rights, sexuality and health. Young people need to be trusted. We do not lack the ability to comprehend information given to them and can be trusted to exercise informed decision making, on the premise that unbiased information is given to us.
Most development aid approaches and agencies have a tendency to infantilize young people in how they see and work with this constituency, denying them agency to exercise independent choice. We often tend to justify giving young people information from adisease prevention, population control perspective, instead of a rights based approach to health. The strategy that looks to ‘protect and save’ young people, especially young women and girls, is often the one, which fails in the long run. The only real protection that can work to effectively address young people and women and girl’s vulnerability to HIV infection and violence is empowerment. We are capable of saving ourselves.
The effectiveness of the information that is internalized by young people will depend both upon the relevance and the content in which they live. I frequently train adolescents and young girls in the work that I do, both in urban schools as well as urban slums. By legitimizing a space to discuss their concerns, as a 17 year old girl mentioned in her feedback form, ‘I realized that issues like HIV and sex weren’t just about infection. It’s about me. How much I understand and respect and have control over my own body. There’s nothing wrong in asking questions, they reduce stigma. The only shame is in not answering them.’
In this political moment, it is perhaps worth asking, why we are so scared to empower young people and whether we can afford the financial burden of not doing so. You should be able to make informed decisions in your own life and have the power to protect yourself from threats to your health and well being. No well-meaning donor, policy maker or funding strategy should deny you those basic rights. And this work cannot happen without integrated support.
‘Leaders’ in our generation don’t need to be single individuals with exceptional brilliance, but rather shared roles in communities where policies recognize that investing in empowering people to build equity is key. When you invest in building the skills, knowledge and access that a young person has, you empower young people to create economic and resource equity in their communities, not just for each other, but also for future generations to come.
A generation of informed young people can challenge, change and mitigate the devastating impact that a lack of health and rights leaves many of us in today.
Policy has to be willing to work with young people, rather than for them, to empower them to stand up for themselves. That, in my mind, is the critical challenge and the greatest contribution that governments and donors can make to the largest-ever generation of young people.
Founder & Chief Executive Officer
The YP Foundation
Developing Potential In Young People
New Delhi, India
The following publications have been referenced as a background to writing the article:
Have you ever felt that some things in the education system could be done differently? Ever felt like you should have a say in how things are done? Felt like you can make a difference, or that you should make a difference?
Ever felt that whom you marry should be your decision? That you should be free to understand your body and sexuality without guilt, shame or fear? That information about and access to condoms and contraceptives should be available freely? That it’s time to have equal standards for all genders? That your sex and society should not define whom you date or love?
This is your chance. To tell us what you think. This is our chance to be heard and to speak up.. So that we can tell the government what young people want. So that we can tell the government that sexuality education is needed! Or If you disagree - tell us why!
Take the comprehensive sexuality education survey! Click here! It only takes 2 minutes! Why?
Because young people have the right to receive information on sexuality and relationships ….Because 78% of young people who are less than 20 years don’tknow about safer sex……Because over 50% of children in India are sexually abused according to a recent government study…Because 49% of girls in India get married before the age of 18 years…….Because nearly 45% of all new HIV infections in the country are in people under 25 yrs old……..
And yet, we are still struggling to make comprehensive sexuality education available in schools across the country. The Central Government along with UN agencies, NCERT and NACO launched the Adolescence Education Program in 2005 which was subsequently banned by several Indian states who felt comprehensive sexuality education is against Indian culture and is not needed by our young people. The curriculum was labelled immoral and too explicit. The curriculum has been subsequently revised and hopefully would be made public by next week.
This is a campaign to unite young people’s voices on their need for comprehensive sexuality education, to discuss how we want this education implemented and to review the current curriculum. Many people have had a say in whether sex ed is needed. The government, NGO’s, teachers, Right wing fundamentalists. The only people who haven’t spoken out is Us. Young people.
This is our opportunity to have a say in how things are done for us. It is our chance to show that we are equal partners in our own development and that we need to be a part of the governance process. It is our chance to speak up and make a difference. So, browse the site. Read. Learn. Express. Share. Discuss. This is your space. This is your campaign.
Know Your Body – Know Your Rights.
And don’t forget to fill out the comprehensive sexuality education survey! It only takes 2 minutes! Spread the word for there is strength in numbers!
The Campaign Team
Anonymous, 21, Chennai
“What would be the quality of education without totality in the approach? If in Chemistry, one is taught the chemical properties of two elements, one is also taught that mixing the two would lead to a third compound. Scientific education builds up one’s logical reasoning. Why deprive an individual of the reasoning when it comes to Adolescence Education Programme? Give a young person the freedom to be able to access information and services and to make own informed choices. Stop human rights’ violation.”
Radhika Mathur, 21 , Jaipur
“Our leaders, both political and religious need to understand that rise in abortions, HIV use of contraceptives (which is in a way harmful due to continuous use) among young people is due to ban on sex related education. This is reality! Hope we will be heard politically and religiously.”
Peter F. Borges, 30 years (Human Touch), Nagpur
“Comprehensive sexuality education shouldn’t be about the biological, physical part of the act alone. It needs to encompass discussions on emotions, consent, safety and in this light be an avenue through which young people can discuss and shatter gender and sexual stereotypes that stifle our progress as intellectual beings.”
Mirna Guha, 23 years , Kolkata
“The hypocrisy surrounding sexuality education in India is mind-boggling. 50% of Indian children are sexually abused and Maharashtra has refused to move forward on a sexuality education curriculum. So we can have sex with kids, we just can’t talk to them about it? Boom.”
Ryan Beck Turner, 24 years, Pune
“Sexuality education is required not only to inform young people about safe sex and protection from HIV and STDs, but also to break the taboo around the issue, to make people comfortable about their body, identity and sexuality.”
Rachit Sai Barak, 19 , Gurgaon
Aam Sabha, September 2011
I have always thought about the need to know everything and be aware. However, awareness, in the definitive sense, has a broad purview, and this thought has always been accompanied by a probing question – if change needs to be made, is awareness solely enough? And so I carried many more questions like this, along with me to the very first ‘Aam Sabha’ of The YP Foundation.
When I entered I saw three corners set up in the hall on three different topics and young people like me walking around and trying to decide, as if going through the menu in a restaurant, looking around what food for thought they want to take back home – whether from the “Alternative Sexual Identities” by Maria Mehra, from “Safe Spaces” by Prabhleen Tuteja from ‘Safe Delhi Campaign- of the NGO Jagori” or from “Sexual and Reproductive Rights” by Anusha Hariharan from the queer collective ‘Nigah’.
The ‘Aam Sabha’ started with an ice-breaker where we had to gather into different groups in order to yell words that made us uncomfortable, out loud. Never in my life had I yelled the words penis, vagina and clitoris so loud. All this had already built up a curiosity in me, I knew I wanted to be a part of all the three sessions and so I decided to divide my time to all three topics accordingly.
Maria Mehra, a dynamic transgender woman, asked us in the session to close our eyes and listen to her voice. She told us that she had always had a feminine voice, that when she was a boy, her voice never cracked to acquire the baritone that we usually identify with masculinity. Our eyes still closed, she asked us to raise our hands if we still thought her to be a man or deserved to be identified as one.
A moment later, we opened our eyes, and looked around. Not one person had raised their hand, and it was in this silent agreement that our session with Maria began. In a society where gender roles are set in stone and anyone who fails to come under the “male” or “female” tag is just thought of as abnormal. The session went ahead with all of us getting acquainted with trials that people like her face in the world, from the difficulty to use public bathrooms as neither gender accepts them as their own, to the confusion while writing their gender in a government form. We listened with rapt attention as she told us about how she was blatantly rejected at a job recruitment agency because she was, well, ‘different’.
On the adjacent corner, the session on Safe Spaces by Prabhleen Tuteja addressed issues that I could relate to on a very close basis, and experiences that I encounter every day. Many a times while travelling alone in the city, when it gets a little dark, certain dimly lit and the not-so-busy areas tend to make me nervous, even if I’m familiar with the place; and the tag of “Unsafe City for Women” on Delhi/NCR doesn’t help! In the discussion, our group was further divided into three sub-groups and each sub-group was given a certain ‘identity’, like- a girl in her early 20’s from the North-East or a 20 year old boy carrying a lot of cash, and so on. We were to come to a consensus on how safe or unsafe a particular area in a typical Delhi neighbourhood (areas like a Temple, an ATM, a park, a college etc.) was for these different identities. It made us realise how certain problems affect different kinds of people differently, how one needed to look at things from the point of view of different people around us.
‘Aam Sabha’ held on 12 September 2011 was an initiative by ‘Reclaiming Our Choices’. The event was a discussion modelled on the concept of a ‘town hall’ on themes of sexuality and rights, alternative sexual identities and orientations, public safety and violence and involving young people in these discussions.
The Way Forward-
The campaign would move forward by forming and organizing events on lines similar to this “Aam Sabha” and by using interactive mediums like movie screenings across the city with the support of the partner organisations, professionals and participants in the following months.
Disclaimer: The photographs were shot during Delhi Queer Pride Parade on 27th November 2011. The photo essay is being published online and will be circulated for non-commercial purposes. If your photograph is in the album and you wish to get it removed, please email Rachit Sai Barak at firstname.lastname@example.org