India

Indian young people offered progressive advice on sexuality

Kashmiri college girls cheer during a women's cricket match at the Women's College in Srinagar, 13 September 2005. Image copyright AFP
Image caption The handbook covers a range of topics considered taboo in India

An Indian government resource kit on adolescent health has received acclaim because of its progressive stance on sexuality.

The resource kit by the National Health Mission, written in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund, is aimed at "peer educators" - young girls and boys who will be responsible for reaching out to adolescents and discussing issues relating to their physical and mental health and development.

The handbook covers a variety of topics ranging from same-sex attraction to sexual abuse and mental health, all of which are considered taboo topics for discussion in India.

The peer educator programme is expected to be rolled out across India soon.

Here are some of the topics it covers.

Same-sex attraction

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Image caption Homosexuality is a taboo topic in India

The resource kit tells its peer volunteers: "Yes, adolescents often fall in love. They may feel attachment for a friend or a person of the opposite or same sex. It is natural to have special feelings for someone."

This is in stark contrast to the legal status of homosexuality in India. Same-sex relations are a criminal offence in the country and are punishable with prison terms that can range from 10 years to life. It is also widely considered to be "unnatural" and same-sex couples are often stigmatised by society.

"Adolescents often feel vulnerability in relationships. It is a time of great change for them and any effort that tries to help them to deal with these things is a good thing," Dr Samir Parikh, a consultant psychologist for adolescents, told the BBC.

"Currently, there is a complete void in education when it comes to dealing with this kind of issue. What makes it even more urgent is that they already have access to a lot of incomplete and distorted information thanks to the fact that the internet and media has already reached all corners of the country."

The menstrual cycle

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Menstruating women are not allowed into many religious places of worship

Menstruation is widely considered to be "unclean" in India. Menstruating women are not allowed into many religious places of worship, and in some cases even into the kitchens of their own homes.

The resource kit tries to explain what menstruation is, and explains that "adolescent girls should not feel ashamed or guilty of having menstruation; they should follow their daily routines with a bit of extra nutrition and hygiene during these days".

It adds: "Menstruation is not 'unclean' or 'polluting'. If managed hygienically, girls can carry out all activities including schooling, outdoor games, cooking, preparing pickles, and perform regular duties with comfort and dignity."

The reference to "preparing pickles" is in response to a widely held belief that if a menstruating girl touches a pickle, it will go bad.

Boys don't cry

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Image caption Boys are told at a very young age that they are not meant to cry or show feelings

The concept of masculinity is another issue dealt with in the resource kit.

In a society dominated by patriarchy, boys are forbidden from showing their softer side and are told at a very young age that they are not meant to cry or show feelings.

Gender stereotypes box men into roles that are meant to be strong and macho and tell girls to be soft-spoken and feminine.

The resource book says that it's OK for a boy or a man to cry to vent his feelings, be soft-spoken or shy, just as it's OK for a girl to be outspoken or dress like boys or play sports generally identified as male sports.

It cautions people against labelling boys who don't fit the gender stereotypes as "sissy" or describing outspoken girls as "tomboyish".

"Men and boys are as weighed down by gender stereotypes and social conditioning as women are. Talking about gender equality therefore also inspires males to challenge the cultural messages about masculinity," said Rebecca Tavares, representative of the UN Women Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Encouraging girls to play outdoors

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Girls are often expected to stay indoors and help with housework

Many Indian parents do not allow girls to take part in sports or play outside once they have reached puberty.

At this point, they are often expected to stay indoors and help with housework instead. This is for a variety of reasons including safety, fear that mingling with the opposite sex will result in "improper" relationships, and perceptions that the girl is "too bold".

The resource kit talks about the importance of physical activity for both boys and girls, and in a portion of text aimed at boys says: "As responsible members of the community, we should ensure that girls are not teased or harassed physically or verbally."

It goes on to say that girls not being allowed to participate in outdoor games and activities is "not good for their physical health, self-esteem and self-confidence".