India is unprepared for gathering teen sexual revolution
Despite the increasing cases of STI and adolescent pregnancies that are reported in India, the country is not doing enough to improve the conditions.
One in four Indian women is married before 18, and 7.8 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 are pregnant or mothers, according to the latest available 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4 data.
While the percentage of women married before 18 decreased from 47.4 per cent in 2005-06 (NFHS-3), the use of contraceptives in married women aged 15-49 years dropped from 56.3 to 53.5 per cent. While 2.7 per cent of boys and eight per cent of girls reported their sexual debut before the age of 15 in 2005-06, the latest comparative data have not been released.
Yet, social and policy barriers do not allow the sexual and reproductive needs of adolescents to be addressed because many of those who have sex are unmarried and below the age of consent, said Sunil Mehra, Executive Director of MAMTA, a Delhi-based non-profit, working on adolescent and reproductive health issues.
As a result, 33.6 per cent of India's population is born of adolescent pregnancies. India has 253 million adolescents, but the country is not doing enough to ensure that they become productive adults. That process begins with making more adolescents familiar with sexuality, but the opposite is happening.
Spurred by concerns of HIV-AIDS, the government in association with UN agencies introduced an adolescence-education programme (AEP) in 2005. Adolescent health featured for the first time as a national programme which included health clinics that offered preventive, promotive, curative and referral services for adolescents and youth. Within two years of inception, the AEP was banned in 12 states.
However, even where the programme is being implemented, the quality of implementation is open to question, she said. "Given that sexuality education addresses long-held attitudes and cultural or moral norms, effective implementation is key to making sure young people get accurate, non-judgmental information," said Srivastava.
Nationally, while the three national health surveys (1992-93, 1998-99, 2005-06) reported an almost equal proportion (59.1, 59.8 and 58.2 per cent) of pregnant and adolescent mothers, there was a steady increase in the first pregnancy among adolescents (11.7, 12.4 and 14.4 per cent). "Early marriage and low contraceptive use are the reasons behind this trend," said a 2015 review in Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research.
What is clear, said experts, is that Indian adolescents are more sexually active than ever – yet, "services for unmarried adolescents are non-existent in India", said Mehra.
Reproductive health services include counselling on menstrual disorders, menstrual hygiene, use of sanitary napkins, use of contraceptives, sexual concerns, sexual abuse and gender violence. While there has been a recent uptake in activities around menstrual hygiene and iron folic supplements through schools and immunisation through anganwadi (day care centre) workers, sexual and reproductive health is "completely neglected", Mehra said.
In October 2014, the government started the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) or National Adolescent Health Programme, which, like adolescent-friendly health clinics (AFHCs), made village health clinics sensitive to adolescent needs. Yet, independent studies reveal widespread ignorance. No more than five per cent of young men and eight per cent of young women in the studied villages were aware of AFHCs, said a 2014 study conducted by the Population Council in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Jharkhand. The main reason 82-90 per cent why adolescents did not seek help was because they thought their problems were not serious enough; the second-most common reason was because they were too embarrassed, the study found.
However, with RKSK, the effort is now to engage adolescents through peer educators who would speak about various life skills,while sensitising ASHAs, auxiliary nurse midwives, anganwadi workers, and medical officers to offer "non-judgemental services", said Indrani Banerjee Bhattacharyya, Assistant Director, Quality Assurance, Child in Need Institute.
In the age group of 15-19, of those who had sexual intercourse, 0.07 of girls and 0.01 per cent of boys were found to be HIV positive, according to the 2005-06 National Family Health Survey. It is obvious, said experts, that contraceptives are not adequately available. And among contraceptives, the only real option is a condom, "yet, it means girls have to rely on their male partners for protection which is not ideal," said Vivek Malhotra, Director, Population Health Services (India).
"Emergency contraceptives as an alternative should be made affordable", he added.