India: Bridging the information gap on sexuality

Depending on how you measure the term “youth,” young people in India count for roughly a few million more people than the population of the United States. This generation dwarfs other age groups in its own country, too. The 315 million young people between the ages of 12-24 years makes up 30 percent of India’s population.

For the most part, India’s youth of today are completely different from the age groups of decades past. For one, the country these young people are growing up in is an emerging superpower, says BusinessWeek. Young people mirror that rising prominence. “This cohort is healthier, more urbanized, and better educated than earlier generations,” writes the US-based Population Council, a non-profit dealing with reproductive health issues.

India’s youth are also increasingly willing to make their own decisions. BusinessWeek reports that 76 percent of India’s single women claim it should be them who decides when they have a child. To researchers and groups like Population Council, however, this confidence may be masking deeper, more cultural reticence regarding reproductive health. “These young people face significant risks related to sexual and reproductive health, and many lack the knowledge and power they need to make informed sexual and reproductive health choices,” Population Council reports.

Information gap

This information gap Ishita Chaudhry has been trying to fill since she began the Youth Parliament in 2002, when she was just 17. Also known as the YP Foundation, the internally-acclaimed group designs and implements community-based youth projects, providing funds for people between the ages of 13 through 28 years to create projects working within socio-cultural, economic, legal and environmental issues. Some of the projects include voter ID registration drives, peer programs for street children and publishing an youth-oriented magazine.

One of the subjects the YP Foundation has naturally gravitated to, however, is reproductive rights and sexuality. Issues like AIDS is especially problematic for the world’s youth, reports UNAIDS. The Geneva-based organization says people worldwide between the ages of 12-24 years account for four of each ten new AIDS cases. Also, (mirroring findings from Population Council, above) this age group has very little knowledge about the disease and its transmission. That's not all. Young people are often “left to fend for themselves,” regarding all aspects of sexuality and reproduction, said Dr Robert Carr, the Associate Director of the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations.

Using technology

The internet is a natural choice to disseminate this information. “If you’re looking at issues of sexually reproductive rights and health,” says Ishita Chaudry, “then it becomes clear to provide a space where young people can continue conversations once they’ve finished community based interactions and workshops.” For the most part, that space is through technology, which works well because so many of India’s youth are online. But also, the internet is a good medium to provide this information because young people can read it on their own time and, if they want, anonymously. In this video Ishita Sharma and Ishita Chaudry speak about the YP Foundation’s online work.

Project 19

The internet may be a fine organizing tool, but the YP Foundation thrives to create communities in the real world. One of the organization's major initiatives is Project 19, which trains young people in New Delhi to become peer facilitators to lead discussions and workshops on often hush-hush topics like gender, sexuality, reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS.

In a post on the YP Foundation blog, Ishita Chaudry sums up some reasons the initiative got underway.

Why as society, are we so scared to address any kind of sexuality education or rights cohesively? What stops us from giving people complete rather than half baked information that is critical and live saving and that can protect them from disease, empowers them to be informed individuals and that teach them to be respectful to their own needs and desires and to be respectful towards the rights of others as well?

…We have had too many years of awkward silences and far too many generations of people who have grown up not being given the opportunity to speak out about their thoughts, fears, expressions and questions.

In conjunction with Project 19, the YP Foundation also organizes (with a variety of other groups) the Project 19 Annual Festival, bringing over 600 at risk and marginalized group and urban youth from around India to Delhi. These young people, whose members range from truck drivers to sex workers, lobby and discuss how to tackle issues ranging from collective rights to sexual reproductive rights and health.

As the Daily Indian newspaper explains:

Using various mediums like art, music, theatre and dance, the festival will provide a platform to the young men and women as well as the vulnerable groups to bring forth their experience-based opinion on different issues and form a network so as to solve some of the problems together.

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