A new youth outreach programme is winning praise for challenging social norms in India from the bottom up. By addressing social issues such as safe sex, gender equality, women’s issues, and LGBT rights, it represents a step forward for public health in India.
“A paradigm shift”
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is distributing “an instruction manual of sorts” called the Saathiya Resource Kit, to 1.65 lakh (165,000) “peer educators.” They are being trained under the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakam (RKSK), a Health Ministry programme, launched on January 7, 2014. The programme’s aim is
“enabling all adolescents in India to realize their full potential by making informed and responsible decisions related to their health and well being and by accessing the services and support they need to do so.”
The content of the resource kit is being lauded. The Indian Express describes the initiative as “a mature, rather progressive step, taken by a government whose outlook is otherwise rooted in conservatism.” They call it “a paradigm shift” for the Modi government.
“When a girl says ‘no’, it means no.”
The kit addresses a number of issues. It advocates safe sex, recommending the use of contraception and birth control by males and females alike to avert unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.
Crucially, the kit emphasises the importance of consent and respect within relationships. It addresses this issue in explicit and unequivocal terms
“Relationships are built on mutual consent, trust, transparency, and respect…Boys should understand that when a girl says ‘no’ it means no.”
Addressing “a bitter culture of rape and violence”
These provisions could not be more timely. It is an indicator that India is addressing what The Guardians calls a “bitter culture of rape and violence.” This is a culture that has led to an Economic Times writer levelling the charge that “the Indian male…has unknowingly been a role model for misogyny the world over.”
This arguably deep-rooted sexism manifests in outdated patriarchal attitudes towards Indian women. This leads to their routine emasculation and exploitation.
India has a shameful rape problem. Last year, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) registered 34,651 incidences of rape in 2015. Facilitating this is a culture where, as recently as 2012, fewer than five percent of Indian women have sole control over choosing their husband. The majority of women still have to seek permission – overwhelmingly that of their husband or an older male relative – just to go to the doctor or shop for groceries.
To this end, the kit speaks out against normative gender roles and encourages young people to avoid pejoratives such as ‘sissy’ and ‘tomboy’
“A boy can cry to give vent to his feelings. He can also be soft-spoken or shy. Being rude and insensitive is not a sign of masculinity. It is alright for boys to like things like cooking and designing that are normally associated with girls; adopting the role of the other gender does not mean that he is not male. The same applies for girls who talk too much or like to dress like boys or play games like boys. It is wrong to label such people as ‘sissy’ or ‘tomboy’.”
“Any individual of the same or opposite sex”
The kit’s teachings on relationships are also being singled out for praise for what it says about homosexuality.
In modern India, homosexuality is sometimes a taboo subject. Section 377 of India’s Penal Code, which dates back to 1862, prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Offenders are liable to life imprisonment according to the law. This is inclusive of homosexual relationships. Prosecutions and convictions are admittedly rare. However, some argue is still used to oppress sexual minorities in India.
Consensual gay relationships were decriminalised for a time by the Delhi High Court in 2009. However, the verdict was overturned in 2013. Many argue that India’s history is more tolerant. They say it is time to shrug off imported European prejudices.
Nonetheless, there is still a stigma attached to same-sex relationships. This contributes to mental health problems among the LGBT community. Last year, it was reported that homophobia and discrimination are common in Indian workplaces – at least in part due to Section 377. Many gay, lesbian, or bisexual Indians live unable to come out. They fear they will lose their jobs; that their families will disown them; that they will be abused and harassed Many commit suicide.
In a bid to counter this, the new resource kit seeks to legitimatise and normalise gay relationships. It says, “adolescents frequently fall in love. They can feel attraction…for any individual of the same or opposite sex.”
Public health benefits
Destigmatising same-sex attraction and relationships is important not just for the mental wellbeing of LGBT people. It can also benefit public health at large. There is a scientific consensus, as outlined in this report by the Human Dignity Trust, that
“rather than slowing the spread of HIV, the criminalisation of homosexuality seriously impedes the effectiveness of measures designed to reverse the HIV pandemic. Further, on an individual level criminalisation leads to increased morbidity and risk of death in those infected with HIV due the barriers it creates to accessing treatment.”
India is home to more than 2 million people with HIV/AIDS. This is the third largest number in the world. It is important to note that same-sex relationships are not the sole route of transmission. Nor are they the chief driver. Heterosexual sex accounts for 87 percent of new infections. Nevertheless, the spread of HIV/AIDS among India’s LGBT community can be stemmed by greater acceptance of homosexuals in Indian society. This may also reduce the stigma around HIV/AIDS patients in general. Those infected with the disease may be more willing to seek treatment.
Changing attitudes naturally requires educating young people. The resource kit and its teachings on key social issues is a step towards progress in this regard. It also a step towards improving the health and wellbeing of India’s most marginalised and oppressed groups.