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