The Centre is making yet another attempt at educating teenagers in the country on the contentious subject of sex. But this time, it has decided to take a new approach.
“After much deliberation, we realised one of the best ways to reach teenagers is through peer educators from within their own community so that they feel comfortable discussing their problems,” CK Mishra, secretary, health ministry, said last month while launching the ‘Saathiya’ or peer educator resource kit.
The plan is to train about 1.65 lakh adolescents in the 15-19 age group who will then share correct information about sexual health with their peers.
The scheme under the health ministry’s Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) will also answer adolescents’ queries on sexual and reproductive health to substance abuse, injuries and violence (including gender-based violence), mental health, nutrition and non-communicable diseases and other issues that concern this particular age.
“This is a very ambitious programme, as it is about changing the behaviour and thoughts of the adolescent population in a positive way,” Mishra said.
Lack of awareness among teenagers has resulted in unsafe sexual practices, violence, substance abuse and mental disorders, including depression and anxiety.
According to UNICEF India’s latest data, one in three adolescent girls have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence, and 13% have experienced sexual violence by their partner.
Around 2.6 million girls have experienced forced sexual intercourse or another form of forced sexual act in the country. Also, 77% of the girls were sexually abused by either husband or partner, while 3% reported sexual violence by a stranger. One in six girls began childbearing in adolescence.
The study also revealed that 45% girls and 48% boys justify wife-beating, which was also reflected in it—33% women are beaten by their husband or partner.
Past attempts at making sex education part of school curriculum has drawn flak and criticism from various quarters, including political parties, parents and even teachers, who were too embarrassed to talk about sex with their students.
Mental health is another neglected area. Owing to the stigma attached, discussing issues related to mental health is still considered a taboo.
A Lancet study released last year showed that suicides contributed to the highest number of deaths among teenagers between 15-19 years in our country. WHO says 4.5% of the total population suffers from depressive disorders—that is more than 50 million people.
The health ministry worked for close to a year with different stakeholders, including United Nations Population Fund, to come up with the new format—peer trainers educating adolescents.
Will It Be Effective?
However, experts have expressed reservations over the effectiveness of the scheme.
“It is a great idea but it is still not very clear how these peer educators will operate or how they will be selected,” said Dr Vikram Patel from Public Health Foundation of India, who was also a part of the advisory group for RKSK.
“It depends on a lot of factors such as gender, age, context, rural and urban setting, and the issues you are dealing with. There are important operational factors to be considered,” he said.
Health secretary Mishra however said there is an assessment component to gauge the effectiveness of the programme.
“We have a provision for evaluating the Saathiya programme after a year of implementation, but it will be too early to talk about it,” he said.
The role of states will be instrumental. Since health is a state subject, the success of the programme will ultimately depend on how well the states comply, especially those states that have had reservations about introducing sex education in their school curriculum.
“How the programme is implemented will entirely depend on the states. We have provided them a tool kit, but it’s eventually their call to pick and choose the content or modify as per their requirements,” says Dr Ajay Khera, deputy commissioner of child health, health ministry.
Dr Patel noted that some states had already launched the scheme, but several others were yet to take it up.
“There are several unanswered questions as of now, which we should find answers to by the end of the year,” he said. “One has to let it roll to know whether it will work or not. It is definitely not like a magical pill that will work overnight.”