Holding discussions on sexuality, gender key to clearing prejudices
For Rohit and 240 million of his adolescent peers in India, questions of sexuality, masculinity, gender roles and relationships are everyday problems, made more difficult by the absence of any information and the stymieing of discussions around these so-called taboo topics.Updated: Nov 17, 2019 11:17 IST
Rohit’s 16th birthday is supposed to be the biggest moment of his life, and for weeks his family had been planning to throw a big party to celebrate it. But Rohit himself was in two minds. The reason: he was increasingly becoming aware of his growing attachment to a classmate that had crossed from friendship to an adolescent crush.
Rohit was certain that he was feeling attracted to his friend, in a way that he didn’t feel about any of the girls in his class, but was not sure how to react to this.
“I didn’t know if I should host the party, or invite him, or tell him at all. After all, men aren’t supposed to like each other. I didn’t like the idea of not being a real man,” said the 15-year-old, who requested that his last name and the name of his hometown be withheld because he hasn’t told his family about his emotions and fears for his well-being.
For Rohit and 240 million of his adolescent peers in India, such questions of sexuality, masculinity, gender roles and relationships are everyday problems, made more difficult by the absence of any information and the stymieing of discussions around these so-called taboo topics.
But initiating such conversations, especially with people at a young age, is crucial if India wants to change its dismal record of gender-based violence by initiating a change in mindset, and clearing prejudices and stereotypes around gender and sexuality that have been calcified by social biases.
“Adolescence is when young people face a lot of changes: biological, social and emotional. They are forming a sense of self, and thinking through their identities. It is crucial to have access to information at that age,” said Tanisha Chadha from the Centre for Catalyzing Change.
These young people are the adults of tomorrow, who will helm relationships, start families and bring up children. “So such discussions and information will have a ripple effect,” Chadha added.
Working with young people has come under focus in India in recent years because of the country’s so-called demographic dividend and youth bulge: the highest number of young people in the world, and more than at any other point in history. Experts and activists say it is crucial to tap this section of society, and address the cultural roots of violence, to build a more just world for tomorrow.
The first step is initiating a conversation – which can be difficult in itself given the conservative set-up in many parts of India. “In our experience, adolescent sexuality is not recognised, and there is no talk about body, sex or pleasure. So young people cannot access these rights, and the situation is further complicated by families and the law,” said Harsh Chauhan of the YP Foundation that works on comprehensive sexuality education with people between 13 and 19 years of age in states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi.
One key thing that many educators keep in mind is that any such conversation covers not just the popular notion of gender, but also things such as relationships, sexual and reproductive health, family, nutrition, how to deal with rejection and how to approach someone. “We talk about a full umbrella of topics with the understanding that gender is cross-cutting, and impacts many different things, including the ways in which we access rights,” said Chadha.
Often the conversation leads to discussions on power, and who holds it, and how it can be deconstructed and shared.
“We often talk about how the idea of a man is shaped by society. Our approach is to think about ways to break down power, and talk about the various hierarchies and different identities that men may have. We talk about what a real man looks like, and how different would he be, if we were to construct our ideas of a real man,” said Chauhan.
Some of the most important conversations happen with young male students, and educators and activists hold out hope that notions of masculinity can be debated at a young age, before they get cemented as stereotypes.
A handy way of connecting with the students is to ask them to put themselves in the situations, and discus what they would have done. “We have conversations around violence and its reasons. Why someone may feel aggressive in a given situation, and whether you really want to do it, or if you are only fitting into the idea of how a man should be. It is a process and the idea is to make people question,” said Chauhan.
Of course, many activists have noted that conversations with young people tend to not address deeply entrenched social constructs such as caste, which affects how particular communities think about gender and sexuality. “There is a need to understand how Dalit people feel, and how caste is often the primary experience of many people from marginalised communities. In the absence of an understanding of caste and Brahmanism, there is little impact of any conversation on gender,” said Dhiren Borisa, a researcher.
There are other challenges too. Chadha notes the chronic lack of feedback from young people, and the very real risk of girls from more conservative families dropping out of school if the families become aware of the nature of information and conversation. “We also need to think about discrimination across various axes, such as caste, class, gender, disability, sexuality, etc,” said Chadha.
At any rate, discussions with young people on gender, sexuality and a whole gamut of emotions and identities equips them not just with information and knowledge but also the motivation to question social norms. Very often, they also lead to tangible changes in attitude, removal of doubts or fear about gender and sexuality, and the development of a more compassionate and questioning mind.
Rohit, for example, has now decided that he will go ahead with the birthday celebrations, call his friend and tell him how he really feels. “I am a little worried, but I know it’s the right thing to do,” he said.