Driving to work one day last week, I had to follow an autorickshaw for about half a kilometre; the driver just wouldn’t give way. So I fixed my gaze on the wobbly, noisy vehicle which had an i-pill (an emergency contraceptive from Cipla Ltd) advertisement pasted on its back.
Young and unsafe, increasingly
I reached work. The main story of the previous day’s Hindustan Times, based on a nationwide survey by the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecological Societies of India, said: “25% young girls sexually active” and “one in five (between 15 and 25 years) said their mother didn’t tell them anything about contraception”. Next day’s The Times of India echoed doctors’ concern about the “rapid intake” of emergency contraceptives: “Youngsters take chill pill very casually”.
Then my mailbox had a research report from the July issue of the American Journal of Adolescent Health, which said teens in the US are heading in the wrong direction—they are likely to have sex but not use contraception. This marks a change from the 1990s and early 2000s, when contraception was widely adopted by teens in the US. Researchers attribute the decline in its use to around a decade of sex education of the abstinence-until-marriage variety, that does not mention contraception unless it is to disparage its use and effectiveness.
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The point I am trying to make is that over-the-counter contraceptives are proving to be a runaway success as products, but there remain glaring information gaps.
To begin with, let’s keep morality (which I believe, like religion, needs to be practised in private) out of this column. Let’s also rule out the argument that no sex or sex education is the best sex education. That leaves us with the question: Should we wait for schools or politicians to arrive at a consensus curriculum for the country or should it, like charity, begin at home?
Two years ago, the human resource development ministry was all set to implement an adolescence education programme (AEP) across schools but had to withhold it in the wake of some public petitions. In April, the parliamentary committee on petitions submitted its report to the Rajya Sabha, virtually rubbishing AEP.
The committee report said: “…in the name of Adolescence Education, multiple agencies of the Government of India had tried to introduce a syllabus in the school curriculum which had the potential to pollute the young and impressionable minds of students by exposing them to indecent material. AEP is a cleverly used euphemism whose real objective was to impart sex education to school children and promote promiscuity.”
This isn’t going to be resolved soon, but a widespread awareness campaign is imperative. “A young girl doesn’t come to me for help or support for she doesn’t know how I will react, like a granny or a gynaec…she thinks walking up to a chemist and asking for an i-pill is her basic right,” says Shyama Narang, a Bangalore-based doctor. She adds, “We are facing this problem because we have kept contraception packed away for the married folks.”
But who will talk of the birds and bees?
Narang, like several other doctors, has young girls who have used emergency contraceptives four to five times in a month coming to her clinic—a habit that can play havoc with hormones. It’s somewhat ludicrous that when adolescents and teens have access to the World Wide Web, parents shy away from educating their daughters and sons about the use, misuse and overuse of these products. The drug manufacturers haven’t done a responsible job either. Besides airing some conspicuously vague ads on television, they haven’t come up with any comprehensive study on how effective the drug is in India. The drugs, in any case, have varying success rates, depending on the time of intake.
Most developed societies are handling this issue through medically accurate sex education and increased access to health services—in the absence of this, the family remains the best bet in India.
The writer is Mint’s deputy bureau chief in Bangalore.
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