Rapid bodily changes take place during the adolescent period. At this stage, emotions run high and society suddenly views you as an adult!
Curiosity, excitement and urge for independence take control but these changes can also be confusing and uncomfortable if adolescents are not guided and heard.
India has the world's largest teenage population. There are 253 million adolescents comprising nearly one-fifth, i.e. 22 per cent, of India's total population.
They vary in age, marital status, economic status, cultural background, religious beliefs, etc. In India, especially in low-income groups and rural India, adolescence is not a concept.
At one point, you are a child and on attaining puberty (menarche or spermarche), you are declared an adult who is ready to be conformed according to societal rules, responsibilities, and procreation.
This attitude is the reason that many adolescents in the country are out of school, are married early, work in vulnerable situations, are sexually active, and are exposed to peer pressure.
This opens them to a high risk of exposure to unprotected sex, harmful sexual practices, RTI/STIs (Reproductive Tract Infection and Sexually Transmitted Infection), and HIV/AIDS.
This situation is further exacerbated due to inadequate knowledge and a lack of access to health facilities combined with cultural taboos, myths, and misconceptions, that restrict adolescents from asking for advice, seeking medical attention, etc.
Comprehensive knowledge around sexual health:
To help adolescents gradually grow into adults who are responsible, aware and in-charge of their future, there is a need for comprehensive adolescent reproductive and sexual health (ARSH) education.
ARSH equips adolescent boys and girls with age-appropriate sexual health knowledge to empower their decisions regarding health, rights, and safety; develop respectful social and sexual relationships, and understand that their choices affect their well-being and that of others.
Lack of information: A grave concern:
Peer educators are at the biggest support-system to promote sound sexual health and reproductive practices among young peopleAdolescent girls are the most to suffer as they have restricted access to SRH (Sexual and Reproductive Health) services which exposes them to the dangers of poor menstrual hygiene practices, non-consensual sex, and unsafe pregnancies and abortions.
According to the National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS), 40 per cent of women between the age of 18-24 years reported having had sexual relations by 18 and 47 per cent were married before 18 and among them, only 13 per cent used contraceptives.
ARSH education to these young girls can empower them towards better menstrual health and increased agency over their health, education and bodies.
While ARSH education affects girls more, boys too have benefited from ARSH education as they understand their bodily and emotional changes, learn about contraceptives and prevention of RTI/STIs, and understand consent and sexual rights so that they too become champions working towards gender equality.
Safe Space and Friendly Faces:
The conspicuous silence around adolescent sexual health has been a household feature of Indian families and communities since forever.
Any mention of sex is tabooed. The prevalence of these taboos in government set-ups also prevents adolescents from seeking guidance or treatment because they fear judgment, ridicule and ostracism.
Friendly faces, provision of safe spaces and non-judgmental support have been observed to help them reach out in a timely manner.
Peer educators are at the biggest support-system to promote sound sexual health and reproductive practices among young people.
Friends find comfort in sharing their thoughts and issues with friends. I have seen how trained peer educators are able to provide adolescents in their communities with a safe space, knowledge, and guidance on sexual and reproductive health, promote healthy sexual behaviors, link them to important government services and enhance gender equality using communication material like videos, short films, etc.
Equitable access to sexual health-related education can also be achieved through new age communication medium should be used to support adolescents such as e-counseling, communication via social media and other information, communication and technology (ICT) platforms such as radio podcasts, televisions.
Likewise, prejudice-free sexual and health counseling should be provided to the younger population to ensure that they have access to the right information.
Adolescent-friendly health services should be provided in communities to ensure that regular checkups are conducted. Lastly, reproductive and sexual health education should be made compulsory in schools.