Let’s talk about it..

Let’s face it. Most Indian parents are uncomfortable talking about sexuality with their children. An attitude shared by most schools. I vividly remember my biology class on reproduction. There we were a bunch of 14-year-old boys and girls, giggly and uncomfortable, trying very hard not to look at the pictures of male and female sex organs in our textbooks. I think the teacher must have spent all of 10 minutes on the subject and we were happy just to get it over with.

Some 25 odd years later, nothing has changed. Sex education remains a taboo for most schools.  Health experts say this needs to change. They point to the countrywide National Family Health Survey 2006 figures, which show that one in six teenagers in India between 15 to 19 years had conceived or given birth.  Most of these girls knew little about contraceptive measures or the consequences of unsafe sex.

Take the recently reported case of a 15-year-old living in a colony in suburban Mumbai. The girl, who comes from a middle class family, was in a relationship with a boy in her school for over a year. They used birth control rarely. She knew nothing about it and the boy claimed it was not required. She found out she was pregnant when her mother noticed a swelling on her stomach and insisted she gets tested. She is 4 months pregnant, too late to have an abortion. Her boyfriend has been arrested and she has dropped out of school.

“Sex before marriage is definitely more prevalent today, than say 10 years ago”, says Dr Duru Shah, former president of the Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetrics Societies of India. “Earlier people got married very young so sex was within marriage. Now they marrying later and they are having premarital sex. But most of them know little about protection. “

Dr Shah further adds,” People are going to have sex. Spreading information on safe sex will not increase sexual activity. It will ensure people have safe sex.”

Lack of information from proper channels forces teenagers to turn to the Internet or friends.  “My 12 year old daughter came from school and told me babies are born when papas rape mamas”, recounts the mother of two teenagers. “I had rather they heard about sex from the school than the school bus. “

Media consultant and mother of two, Reeta Gupta believes sex education is “an important intervention that explains the consequences of reckless experimentation amongst adolescents.”

However, that’s not an attitude shared by most parents and schools. Information about sex, they believe will encourage promiscuity. “One school did not want me to even mention condom,” says social psychologist and sexuality educator, Chandni Parekh.  ‘Some schools may call a gynecologist but there is no room for Q &A.” Parekh’s module on sexuality education for school and college students encourages discussion on forbidden subjects like masturbation, menstruation and HIV AIDS.  “We tell them about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  It’s about forming values that are respectful towards relationships and intimacy.”

Three years ago, education authorities at the central government level proposed starting an ‘Adolescent Health education” program in schools around the country. That has since gone into cold storage.  It’s time to take a serious look at it because sexuality education is critical to save lives. Studies have shown unsafe sex is a huge health risk leading to sexually transmitted infections, including the deadly human papilloma virus or HPV, infertility and neonatal deaths.

More about FGM

Thank you all for writing in, in support of the campaign to end female genital mutilation in India.  I just want to  say that the idea is not to target one particular community but to raise awareness about a practice that is harmful for women, physically and mentally.

I am posting some links on FGM from around the world which I found interesting. I had posted them at the end of my last blog but they need to highlighted as they offer useful insight into the practice elsewhere in the world. It would be great if you could post links to the issue as well.

Let’s keep the campaign going!

FGM in Pakistan – published in the Newsline, written by Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam


FGM in the United States, by Mariya Tahar


To hear the presentation, click on Session One: Women and Violence –


Bringing in a change, the Tostan Way

Marieme Bamba

Born in Soudiane in rural Senegal in West Africa, Marieme Bamba was 13 when she got married. At 14, she gave birth to her first child. Today she is a solar engineer who has helped set up sustainable and low-cost electricity in many villages in her country. And has trained many other women to do so. Her story, and that of hundreds of women like her in countries in West Africa, is a testament to the efforts of Tostan, an NGO that has helped bring about sustainable development and social change in these parts. In Tostan’s approach, lies a valuable lesson for India, which is grappling with similar problems.

Tostan, in the Senegalese language Wolof, means “breakthrough” as well as “spreading and sharing”. It was founded by American Molly Melching who decided to stay on in Senegal while pursuing her degree in African studies in capital, Dakar. Through its “Community Empowerment Program”, started in 1995, the NGO offers “participatory human rights education to adults and adolescents who have had no access to formal schools.”  It helps them devise their own solutions to their struggles.

Molly Melching

  At the core of Tostan’s approach lies Respect. Essential when it comes to communicating ideas that    involve change. Take female genital cutting, practiced widely across parts of Africa. Melching prefers to call  it  the less judgmental term, cutting. “Cutting”, says Mulching “was practiced because mothers loved their daughters. They did not want to hurt them. There is great social stigma attached to not cutting and mothers wanted to protect their daughters from this.”  Despite the pain, families forced their daughters so they would not be seen as “unclean” or “not marriage worthy.”

Through community meetings on human rights of women and children, the health risks they faced due to cutting were highlighted. Eventually some villages adopted resolutions to put an end to the practice.

To ensure the impact is widespread, Tustin adopts the “social diffusion” approach, the brainchild of Demba Diawara, a respected religious figure and community leader.  African villages are closely linked and Demba realized it was important to create a network of villages for a change to take root. With a team of community leaders, he visits different villages to talk about the benefits of banning FGC . Today 6000 communities in six countries in Africa, apart from Senegal, have abandoned the practice.

Young girl at Kieur Simbara village, Senegal

Tostan’s efforts in other areas like ending child marriage, community micro credit programs, promoting maternal and child health have been widely acknowledged. Issues large parts of India grapple with even today.  There are a few NGOs in India whose approach is similar to that of Tostan, and their successes are acknowledged worldwide. Organizations like SEARCH in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed, Maharashtra have been able to make a breakthrough where government programs have failed.  Rather than a blanket Central scheme which benefit a few, engaging with communities to understand their specific needs could help find a long term solution.

To learn more about Tostan, visit http://www.tostan.org/


Fighting Female Genital Mutilation in India

“When I was around 7 my grandmother took me on an outing. We went to a dingy building. The women there told me to take my panties off. Then all the women, including my grandmother, pinned my arms and legs down. One of the women took a blade and began cutting me down there. I screamed in terror and pain”.

It was accounts like these that has spurred a Mumbai based woman to start an online petition seeking to put an end to female genital mutilation. A ritual not many people are aware is observed in India.

Tasleem, who describes herself as an educated woman in her 40’s, is from the Dawoodi Bohra community where the practice, called khatna, is a rite of passage. She plans to forward her petition to the community high priest Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, asking him to put an end to it.

Tasleem declined to meet or even speak on the phone as she fears exposure. In a detailed email interview she explains what pushed her to speak out.  The Dawoodi Bohra community, while highly educated, is strongly conservative, and her step is a bold one. Tasleem says she was not circumcised, but the stories she heard made her “boiling mad”.

Khatna involves removing the clitoral hood, and in some cases, the entire clitoris. Today, it’s mostly done after birth, when the baby is four days old by community doctors. “The idea behind this is to curb her sexual pleasure. The belief is that otherwise the girl will go astray” says reformist Bohra scholar Dr Asghar Ali Engineer. “Unlike the male circumcision ritual which is celebrated, this is done in a hush-hush manner,” explains Dr Engineer.  There are some who have resisted, but they are a tiny minority. Nasreen (name changed) refused to let her 14 year old be circumcised.  “We are seen as an educated community, but the truth is our girls are put through such barbaric rituals even today”, she says.

The petition which is acquiring growing online support has sparked off a debate within the 10 lakh strong Dawoodi Bohra community, spread across the states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat.  The practice has huge support from many who say FGM is mandatory under the Bohra Sharia (law).  A notion noted Islamic scholars like Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali question. “Nowhere in the Koran or the teachings of the Prophet is the act shown to be legal. This is completely unIslamic. Bohra Shariat also springs from the Koran. The prevalence shows the pre-dominance of patriarchy. Traditions like these which are anti-women have to be questioned,” says Dr Ali.

According to the World Health Organization, globally, nearly 150 million girls and women have undergone FGM.  More than 3 million girls are at risk in Africa alone. Apart from Africa, it is practiced in a few countries in Asia and the Middle East. Seventeen countries have laws specifically banning FGM.

The harmful impact of FGM has been widely acknowledged. The WHO says FGM can lead to haemorrhage, tetanus and open sores. Long term consequences include infertility, risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.

To learn more about Tasleem’s campaign click on