When it comes to talking about family planning, India is still a shy bride hiding behind her ghoonghat, a veil that is made up of the reluctance to talk about sex and the fear of “corrupting” non-existent morals. Ironically, thousands of young brides walk into married life with a veiled understanding of family planning, familiar only with oblique references and suppressed giggles. Don’t get me wrong, young boys and girls know about sex, they are armed with only half-baked information from unreliable sources, a dangerous situation for young people who are caught in a storm of hormones, physiological and psychological changes.
The situation calls for a review of India’s approach to family planning that is heaving under the baggage of appropriateness. Take for instance India’s extensive and exhaustive process of data collection that is compiled once every decade under the National Family Health Survey. The survey asks several key questions on the usage of spacing methods, the awareness of family planning services, and the unmet need for spacing methods. But these questions are directed towards married women and do not consider the need for awareness on sexual and reproductive health for adolescents.
Information cannot be locked up in a water-tight chamber and we must realise that the movement of this information is a natural process. But if we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that sex and contraception do not exist, we will be complicit in the spread of misinformation.
India has the advantage of a demographic dividend, which is meaningless on its own and the arrangements to trigger the process should have been in full swing by now. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Population Foundation of India (PFI), rolled out the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), a peer educator-based national adolescent health programme.
Population Foundation of India decided to marry its trans-media initiative Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (MKBKSH) with RKSK and introduced the Saathiya Kit for the grooming of adolescents to become peer-educators. The last 26 episodes of MKBKSH’s season two were branded and introduced for peer educators under the government programme.
Eight films from MKBKSH were further derived and added to the Saathiya kit. The kit is aimed at easing out the path to adulthood from adolescence, enabling holistic development and changing existing mind-sets – understanding contraception and the need for family planning, understanding consent, same-sex attraction is normal, and boys can cry.
More recently, the organisation also launched Sex Ki Adalat to break the myths and misconceptions around subjects such as virginity, sex-selection, pornography, and menstruation. The courtroom drama series builds on the content bank of behaviour change communication material that has been created keeping adolescents and youth in mind. The episodes focus on delicate subjects with subtlety and humour and have been portrayed through relatable situations within the cultural context of India.
In the long run, the implications of an incomplete family planning programme are widely understood, and what gets discussed most often is the quantitative impact. The increasing rates of maternal and infant mortality, India’s population projections and more recently, were the news reports of India overtaking China as the most populous nation. One may argue that our birth rates have been decreasing, however, our population momentum will continue due to the large number, nearly 51 per cent, of people in the reproductive age group between 15 to 49 years. While we tend to view this data through the narrow purview of numbers in reality family planning is an intimate endeavour that should be considered within a larger framework of sexual and reproductive rights rather than only an exercise in population control.
Several women encounter family planning services for the first time as a spacing method after the birth of her first child. But if we need to truly tackle the growth of our population and slow it down we need to start with the youth.
Young people should be counselled on the benefits of getting married later and delaying the birth of the first child. These are shortcuts to empowerment, especially for women. To know how to protect herself from unwanted pregnancy or how to use spacing methods gives her agency over her body. It further encourages involvement in household decisions, enables her to enter the labour force, contribute to the income of the household, therefore, bring improvement to her standard of living. Furthermore, a woman who changes the narrative also makes it possible for thousands of other women to rewrite their destiny.
Family planning is not an alien concept in India; ironically, we were one of the first countries to have a well-planned family planning programme as far back as 1952. However, somewhere between then and now, the ball of yarn unraveled. And at this point, we cannot delay the action on prioritising the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents and young people. Planning a family is not an issue, it is a responsibility that we have towards the country. And with 300 million adolescents who have ambitions that are sky high and increasing social capital, it would be foolhardy to exclude them from the conversation.
– Poonam Muttreja is the Executive Director of Population Foundation of India, a national NGO, which promotes and advocates for the effective formulation and implementation of gender sensitive population, health and development strategies and policies.
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