Understanding Adolescence in India

Who is an adolescent? Is it a concept that is universally understood in exactly the same way? While internationally, the age group of 10-19 years is considered to be the age of adolescence this differs across societies, cultures and even within the country. Like childhood culture, age old gender distinctions, variations also arise from factors such as urban, rural and tribal residence, ethnicity and socio economic levels of the family.

While in some cultures adult status is granted to both boys and girls through initiation rites at puberty, amounting to an abrupt transition from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, it may be an extended period of transition in other cultures. In the same way, among the poor, children ‘grow’ up (that is they are considered grown up) much faster and have to take on ‘adult’ responsibilities, including that of income generation at a much earlier age. The higher economic strata the concept of childhood is much more extended.

In India, despite even the ancient text of Dharamashastra recognizing the crucial nature of adolescence and prescribing specific codes of conduct for the phase, the concept of adolescence is comparatively new in contemporary India and it is youth that has found space in policy formulations.

In contemporary India, age limits of adolescents have been fixed differently under different programmes keeping in view the objectives of that policy or programme- adolescents in the draft Youth Policy have been defined as the age group between 13-19 years; under the ICDS programme adolescent girls are considered to be between 11-18 years; the Constitution of India and labour laws of the country consider people up to the age of 14 as children; whereas the Reproductive and Child Health Programme mentions adolescents as being between 10-19 years of age. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act (JJ Act) 2000 and now the JJ Act 2015; and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act), 2012 define all persons up to the age of 18 years as a child. Many other initiatives cover the large 10-24 age group of adolescents and youth.

Still, one can certainly identify common features related to biological, cognitive and psychological imperatives of human development. And this is true of children who are transiting from childhood to adulthood in India too. And this is the period that can be described as adolescence.

There are 358 million young people in India between the age of 10-24 years. They are the reason that India can boast of a demographic dividend. Whether India will be able to take advantage of its demographic dividend will depend greatly upon how much it invests in its young people- not just to make them skilled economic assets, but as confident, healthy well protected persons who can take charge of their own lives as well as of society. But for young citizens to be healthy, responsible and active members of society, we need to ensure that the adolescents transit into adulthood in a protective and enabling environment that is free from abuse and exploitation- one that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion caste and gender, and that the values of non-discrimination and equity are inculcated within them.

Unfortunately that is the biggest gap. There is adequate documentation that tells us how parents and society in India rarely provide the desired support to growing adolescents regarding biological and physiological changes as also the meaning attached to these. In fact what we do see instead is that youth sexuality stands out as an important aspect which is inadequately understood and that there have been taboos to access information and lack of counseling services make youngsters.

As the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) acknowledges, “despite 35 percent of the population being in the 10-24 age groups, the health needs of adolescents have neither been researched nor addressed adequately; particularly their reproductive health needs are often misunderstood, unrecognized or underestimated. Limited research shows that adolescents are indulging in premarital sex more frequently at an early age, the incidence of pregnancies among them is rising and most of them face the risk of induced abortions under unsafe conditions, and contracting sexually transmitted infections including HIV”. In fact, what young people are confronted with is what is referred to by ICMR as a “state of oblivion, without the prospect of a decent career or education and unable to fulfill the duties that adult life requires them. They are unsure about their capacities and lack of long term goals for the future”.

These are compounded by the challenges posed by cultural mores, patriarchy and gender discrimination and also other forms of discrimination based on caste, religion and ethnicity. Besides, sexuality and discussions around this issue is a taboo in most Indian societies.

It is well established that early marriage not only has health implications and may also lead to violence against the girls; the additional adult responsibilities and consequent lack of ability and scope to make life choices are true for both the boys and the girls in that under-age marriage. The International Institute for Population Sciences and Population Council study has found that while marriage marks the onset of sexual activity among the large majority of young women, there is growing evidence of premarital onset of sexual activity in adolescence particularly among young men. And although there are rural urban and gender differentials, young people also engage in sex with more than one partner.

Apart from consensual sexual activity, adolescents and young people, both girls and boys, are subjected to sexual violence by adults and their peers who have grown up with patriarchal norms and even power norms instilled inside them. And yet, the attitude of the justice delivery mechanism too reflects this attitude. While a child below the age of puberty receives sympathy, an adolescent girl is viewed with suspicion and questioned on her ‘character’.

At the same time, how much information the young people have is of course a matter of conjecture. But there are several interventions that are targeted recognising this gap.

And yet there is a blind eye turned to this issue. Indeed, it is denial and disapproval that surrounds issues of reproductive health and sexuality of young people and discussion on sex and sexuality of adolescents is seen to be a result of “western influence” and “against the Indian culture”.

This hypocrisy resulting in disapproval and denial is reflected in the ban that several states have imposed on the provision of Adolescence Education Programmes (AEP) in state-run schools which had been introduced by the Minsitry of Human Resource Development in 2005 in all the 28 States and 7 Union Territories collaboration with NACO as a follow up of the decision taken by the inter-ministerial meeting held in October, 2004.

It is also reflected in the petitions made against sex education that and in the recommendation of the Committee on Petitions formed to evolve a consensus on the implementation of the AEP, comprising Rajya Sabha members from several political parties, who recommended that “there should be no sex education in schools” (RAJYA SABHA COMMITTEE ON PETITIONS, 2009).

The petitioners had in their petition contended that the “decision of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development to impart sex education to the students of Class-VI onwards in CBSE affiliated schools, had shocked the conscience of all the culture loving people of the country submitted that the proposed move of the Government to include sex education in the school curriculum would strike at the root of the cultural fabric of our society that had been nourished over the millennia. Every country has a social milieu and culture of its own and the programmes which are western oriented cannot be implanted in our system in toto.” Dr. J.S. Rajput mentioned that the policy of the Government on sex education was a misadventure in the field of curriculum development which had been implemented under foreign funding managed by UNICEF and UNFPA. The external funding agencies were keenly interested in bringing in their own cultural influences. He treated the policy as a blatant example of cultural invasion

The entire report of the Committee and how it addresses the issue is also a reflection of this attitude, especially when it says- “After having gone into the programme in detail, the Committee has come to the inevitable conclusion that the real objective of AEP appeared to vitiate the academic environment of the schools and cause incalculable damage to the impressionable young minds and thereby corrupt the future citizens of our country”.

Not surprisingly, this attitude is also reflected in the behaviour of the health care providers. While most stakeholders were comfortable discussing sexual and reproductive health matters with married young women, sizeable proportions reported discomfort in addressing young men and even unmarried young women.

It is significant that Government of India has recognized the importance of influencing health seeking behaviour of adolescents and has acknowledged that “the health situation of this age group (15-19) is a key determinant of India’s overall health, mortality, morbidity and population growth scenario”.

This focus on adolescents was visible for the first time in the Ninth Five Year Plan (1997-2002) although it mentioned adolescents in the sections on women and children, health and youth. Specific mention of adolescents in the Ninth Plan included its commitments towards the child to universalize supplementary feeding with a special emphasis on adolescent girls, to expand the Adolescent Girls’ Scheme and to assess the health needs of adolescents in the Reproductive and Child Health (RCH) Programme. A Working Group on Adolescents was set up to provide inputs to the Tenth Five Year Plan of India, which was an important recognition of the need to focus attention on this group. However, in the Plan the desired focus on adolescents is missing- adolescent’s girls were bunched with either women or children except in case of nutritional needs and boys and the male youth have received negligible and little attention..

At present, apart from many initiatives by NGOs across the country, the multidimensional needs of adolescents and youth are being addressed the schemes and programmes being implemented by six Ministries –Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Skill Development, Entrepreneurship, Youth Affairs and Sports, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry Human Resource Development, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Ministry of Labour and Employment and their departments at the National as well as the state levels. Other Ministries such as the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Ministry of Rural Development also have initiatives for them.

The main schemes targeting adolescents are the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for the Empowerment of Adolescent Girls (SABLA), the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA), the National Education for Girls at Elementary Level (NPEGEL), the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV). State governments have their own programmes like Kanyashree in West Bengal.

While all these schemes targeted adolescent girls, reccognising the importance of working with adolescent boys, the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of adolescent boys (Saksham) was introduced in the Twelfth Plan with the primary aim that adolescent boys are to guided to inculcate a complete sense of responsibility to respect their female counterparts. The National Child Labour Programme targets child and adolescent workers below the age of 18 years to be mainstreamed into education. It is sad indeed that it had to discontinue its all India AEP programme after protests discussed above

Among national policies that address young people’s sexual and reproductive health needs and rights are the National Population Policy 2000, the National AIDS Prevention and Control Policy 2002 and the National Youth Policy 2003. All of them recognise the need to address young people as a special and vulnerable group.

In the areas of education and skill development of young people, the National Policy on Education 1986 (as modified in 1992) and the National Skill Development Policy 2009, likewise, have reiterated the need to equip young people with adequate schooling and skills to compete in a globalising world.

India’s National Adolescent Health Strategy, announced in January 2014, highlights the critical need to reach adolescents with relevant information and services related to their health, particularly sexual and reproductive health (SRH). The strategy places communication and the use of information and communication technology (ICT) based platforms as one of the central pillars to ensure expanded coverage to this young population. The strategies include designing hotlines, SMS gateways, and technology-based interventions that enable two-way communication.

In 2014, for the first time, the Government of India developed a comprehensive programme to address all aspects of adolescent health in the country- Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK). As against earlier initiatives that were focused on girl and women, the RKSK seeks to enable all adolescents and youth to realize their full potential by making informed and responsible decisions concerning their health and well-being and by accessing the services and support they need to implement their decisions. With the launch of this programme, the government has acknowledged that the needs of adolescent boys have largely been ignored until now.

However, the RKSK is yet to achieve its goals. For example, in order to realize this vision, the RKSK framework acknowledges the strengthening of Adolescent Friendly Health Clinics (AFHCs) and providing correct knowledge and information through counselling services as two of its seven critical components (7Cs). Evidence from the Youth in India: Situation and Needs study indicates that sexual and reproductive health services have not reached most young people in these states (International Institute for Population Sciences and Population Council, 2010). Although known as ‘adolescent’ friendly clinics, these clinics are designed to meet the specific needs of young people, that is, adolescents (10–19 year-olds) and youth (15–24 year-olds). As of 2013, a total of 6,220 AFHCs have been established. The AFHCs, however, have not made significant inroads into providing services for young people as evident from the Youth in India: Situation and Needs study and other evaluations. For example, in the Youth in India study, just seven percent of young men and three percent of young women reported that they had ever received information on sexual matters from a health care provider.

Population Council in its review of the policies, laws and programmes and its findings suggest that although there have been significant strides in articulation of a commitment to addressing many of the sexual and reproductive rights of young people there remains “a considerable schism between commitments made in policies and programmes, the implementation of these commitments and the reality of young people’s lives in India” .

The report observes that “Although various approaches have been adopted to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health among young people, and that programmes have been implemented for several sub-populations. While these initiatives have been commendable, their implementation has been marred by several obstacles.” This is because they are not just inadequate in content, but also because these government initiatives are largely school based, leaving out a huge population outside the school system untouched.

The limited ARSH initiatives and clinics that exist too show tardy performance. For example, the National Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health Strategy to sensitise various categories of health care providers to the needs of adolescents, the limited evidence available, raises questions about the quality and content of training.

This is reiterated by JOSH’s study whose findings indicate that there is a significant gap between the existing between the government schemes and services for the protection of adolescents and youth and their realization at the local level. Its findings show that government social schemes are difficult to navigate and require lengthy bureaucratic processes that decrease their utility and effectiveness”.

The laws that deal with sexual behaviour are also very confusing. The Child Marriage Prohibition Act 2006, prohibits child marriage but allows it to be legal and valid if it has taken place. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 makes 18 years as the age of consent criminalizing any sexual activity before this age. So what happens to sex with an underage girl in marriage or two under age married persons in a marriage? Needless to say ‘consensual’ sex between two adolescents below the age of 18 is an offence under POCSO Act. Work with juvenile offenders shows that a large number of cases of young offenders booked for rape are what is popularly referred to as “love cases”- cases in which a young underage couple was founded indulging in sexual activity, following which the boy is booked for sexual assault under the POCSO Act. Following the amendment to he JJ Act in 2015, some of them now find themselves being sent into the adult criminal system as “heinous offenders”.
There is no doubt that the recognition of the needs of young people since the 1990s has led to changes and an improvement in their situation in terms of education, health, reduction of gender disparities in education, mortality rates, age of marriage etc. But as areeport by Population Council points out, many obstacles still exist that “inhibit young people from making informed life choices and from adopting egalitarian notions of masculinity and femininity, limit young women’s exercise of agency…” The report also reiterates the importance of investments in adolescent reproductive and sexual health which will yield dividends in terms of delaying age at marriage, reducing teenage pregnancy, meeting un-met contraception need, reducing maternal mortality, reducing STI incidence and reducing HIV prevalence

While investment in young people for reproductive and health reasons is important, it equally important to work on them on areas of sexuality so that they can make informed choices and protect themselves from abuse and exploitation. It is equally important to ensure their skill and educational development so that they can be confident individuals and citizens as well as investing as in them as a resource and as change makers.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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