Mohammed Asif and Dr Komal Goswami work for an organization that strives to advance children’s rights and equality for girls. They believe that India needs urgent measures to implement adolescent sexual health programs. Excerpts from an interview with Jeevan Prakash:
What’s your vision?
Asif: It is important to talk about it because incidents of reproductive and several other diseases, illness and morbidity, evident through the National Health and Family Survey, indicate a need and an opportunity for improvement in this space. There are gaps especially with regard to the uptake of modern contraceptive practices, correct knowledge about sexuality and other important determinants of reproductive health. Plan India works closely with Durex and Reckitt under the TBBT project that’s oriented at transforming the landscape.
Why is there a need to impart comprehensive sexuality education?
Asif: One of our efforts is to create a successful model of change and TBBT is a step in that direction. We work intensively and comprehensively to create a model in which the participation of adolescents, teachers, and the education system, demonstrates that change can be brought about in these areas. Once we have a tested model on a reasonable scale, it becomes easier to take it to the state governments, which are committed to the issues, and are responsible to take this forward. They can scale it at the states’ levels, and we can take it to the UN agencies and CSR colleagues. So, the idea is to build a comprehensive monitoring evaluation, create evidence and this is an important step that is not just about implementing or design, but following it up.
How does one make it a national phenomenon?
Asif: In fact, this is on the agenda for some time. There is a less-known government program on school health and we wish to promote the same with a strong focus on sexual and reproductive health education. What is missing is how to enhance curriculum development and teachers’ training, and get parents and school management committees on board. How does the school health initiative harmonize with other agendas in a robust manner? The New Education Policy does have elements of health and wellbeing, so there is an opportunity. With successful models like TBBT, it will be easier for state governments to take it up.
What problems will we face if this isn’t done?
Asif: The obvious challenges are in the space of public health because you will have a large cohort of the population that needs to be supported with information and knowledge to enter adulthood and family life. I think this itself is a problem. What I foresee is that it has issues around child protection. We do know what kind of sexual violence is there against girls and boys. How does this get connected through having appropriate and correct information and knowledge about sexuality, active health rights, family planning, contraceptives. etc? I think public health, as well as the other social challenges, have to be addressed and this is the right time to do so.
What is your experience in the six north-east states?
Komal: Through this program, we intend to focus on two million children in six states – Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. When we started a year ago, the topic was reproductive and sexual health, and people were not comfortable to talk about it. Since then, the conversations have started. One of the biggest achievements is that the state governments and the school education department have partnered with us, officially signed MoUs, and inculcated the program into each school through principals, teachers, and students. We wish to empower children by talking about inclusion, equity, awareness, consent and protection. The curriculum is laid out in a way that it doesn’t just talk about bodily or emotional changes, but about psychological wellbeing, with mental wellbeing as an integral part, and safety. The chapters in the curriculum include dating violence and substance abuse, apart from menstruation, night fall, and reproduction. The curriculum is holistic and focuses on engaging youth in a way that learning becomes fun and focuses on concept of inclusion, equity, awareness, consent and protection. It becomes important to educate teachers, students and communities as HIV prevalence is still higher in some of the north-east states.
Is there a need to include TBBT in the national curriculum?
Komal: In fact, the government has taken various initiatives recently. We wish to complement these programs. We want to have the curriculum enrolled in the north-east and there is a scope of envisaging this curriculum in the rest of the country. The curriculum intends to make people’s lives healthier by providing them with life-saving critical information on sexual and reproductive health, empowering adolescents, promoting healthy behavior, engaging communities, and helping adolescents to become responsible adults.
What about the training of teachers?
Komal: This can be the catalyst of the entire approach and implementation of the program. We want to reach out to children who think of schools as safe spaces. We hope to create a safe space through teachers so that they can help students develop the confidence to talk about sexual health. Children are hesitant to talk to peers, parents, etc. Of course, we understand that the students are the change agents when we talk about nation’s growth and nation-building. We make a process that will reach out to teachers in each school in six north-east states. Also, our unique Rewards and Recognition program with interschool and interstate prizes helps motivate important stakeholders such as schools, principals, teachers and students to participate in our program for improved outcomes on sexual health in the critical growing-up years.