by Kavitha Rao
The plight of Falak, the two-year-old who is currently struggling for her life, after being beaten, burnt and bitten, raises the question: Why are unwanted children still being born, often to parents barely more than children themselves? While the facts are still unclear, it's probably safe to say that Falak is an unwanted child, one of millions who should not have been born, but were.
About a couple of years ago, I wrote a story on the increasing use of emergency contraception in India, and posted on an online forum asking for users of the i-pill to contact me with their experiences. So far, I have got nearly 50 emails from desperate young people, feverishly begging for advice on contraception, pregnancy scares, and possible abortions. My correspondents are both male and female, most unmarried, but some married. Many could not understand the simple instructions on the i-pill box and had been taking it wrongly for months. Several teenagers had been taking as many as 20-30 i-pills a month, with possible severe consequences. All were too embarrassed to visit a doctor and get proper contraception, even a lady doctor. Most were also too nervous, or too clueless, to call the i-pill helpline.
I also spoke to several doctors for the story. The general consensus: Indians of all ages do not know how to use regular contraception, confusing the i-pill with the regular birth control pill. Worse, most are too ashamed or naive to go to doctors. More teenagers than ever before are having sex with first-time partners without using condoms, in many cases risking AIDS, herpes and other diseases. Said one doctor, "Many of the girls I see are highly educated, but they still use abortion as their only contraception."
Our teens have rapidly become more independent, with more opportunities to meet the opposite sex, but sex education is still trapped in the Victorian era. Many of the girls who emailed me were highly educated teenagers in the best colleges, with no more knowledge of sex than a five-year-old. I was also startled by the fact that many of the people who emailed me were married men, yet so careless that they preferred to ask a stranger on the Internet for information about contraception rather than go to a doctor. Similar media reports confirm that Indians, especially teens, are using unreliable and dangerous emergency contraception out of sheer ignorance.
The very words "sex education" seem to drive Indians, especially political parties, into a frenzy of panicky denial. In 2007, the National Education Ministry and National HIV/AIDS Control Organisation introduced a laudable education programme for 15 to 17 year adolescents that included information on contraception and STDs, but the programme was immediately banned by five states. Among the states that banned the programme were Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka-which have the largest HIV/AIDS infected populations in India- and Uttar Pradesh. The CBSE has been trying to introduce sex education as part of the curriculum for older children for the past nine years, but has been thwarted at every turn by right wing political parties. Nearly every political party trots out that old chestnut: sex education (chee, chee) is not part of Indian culture. Maybe not, but shouldn’t it be?
We pride ourselves on not having teenage mothers like Britain, the US and several other “degenerate” Western countries. The fact is that we do have teenage moms: 43% of Indian girls are married before they are 18.The only difference is that they have a husband. But that sacred pati parmeshwar doesn't protect a teen mom against the harmful effects of premature pregnancy: anemia, malnutrition, underweight babies, missing out on education, and a high risk of maternal death. As this UNICEF report points out, only Bangladesh, Chad and Niger have a higher figure of adolescent marriages, and maternal mortality in India continues to be the highest in the world.
As for sex outside marriage, politicians may try to drum up nationalistic feelings by claiming that no good Indian teen has sex outside marriage. But the surveys show that we do, every day. What we haven't grasped is that no sex education does not mean no sex. All it means is that teens, married and unmarried, are having unsafe, panicky sex without contraceptives, as the latest India Today survey shows.
The fact is that sex education is more than just thrusting contraceptives at pre-teens. It should also include life skills: what to do if you end up in an early marriage, how to look after your body and fertility despite social pressures, how to get contraceptives easily, what to do if your boyfriend pressurises you into sex, how to seek help when in an abusive relationship. The papers are full of girls- ordinary college going girls- being stalked, raped, attacked and blackmailed by ordinary boys. Can we really fool ourselves that pregnancies and bad relationships only happen to "bad" girls? The fact is that it could happen to any of our children. Sex education is especially crucial for women. Women should be taught to take control of their own fertility, because they have more to lose and also because the majority of men really can’t be bothered.
Meanwhile, as political parties continue to wrangle, a generation of children will enter puberty armed only with rumours, misinformation and lies.
Kavitha Rao is a freelance journalist and parent who detests parenting manuals. Her main parenting mantra: “This too shall pass.”