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:
“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