Setting aside all the hullabaloo about the much-debated National Educational Policy 2020, the latter has hardly anything to offer on improving the sexual and reproductive health of women in India. This was unexpected since NEP 2020 aimed at holistic education.
Adolescent and reproductive health has been long neglected in India so much so that it has remained a perennial health hazard throughout the years. Significant studies and National Family Health Surveys confirm through evidential reports that a growing number of teenage girls in India are becoming young mothers as victims of child marriages, hampering their right to education and health adversely. The latest NHFS-5 reveals only a 1 per cent decrease in teenage pregnancies from 2019 to 2021.
It must be noted that for much of this period, the country was under severe restrictions due to the prevalence of the COVID-19 pandemic that demanded people be locked up in their homes. As a result, young girls too had to bear the brunt of the loss of education and consequential early marriage. There was an alarming increase in the number of forced marriages and teenage pregnancies reported during this time.
Not only do states like Manipur, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh have increasing percentages of teenage pregnancies, but the percentage of teenage pregnancy throughout India is abysmally high. Setting aside all the hullabaloo about the much-debated National Educational Policy 2020, the latter has hardly anything to offer on improving the sexual and reproductive health of women in India. This was unexpected since NEP 2020 aimed at holistic education. However, sex education and curriculum framework on psycho-sexual training remain totally neglected. Is it a fault in our pedagogy that despite classes on life skills and discussions on anatomy in school education, the emphasis is on factual and rote learning and not critical thinking?
Though there is a focus on workshops on sexual harassment of women and girls by the University Grants Commission, the emphasis is on learning about self-defense workshops in educational institutions, and all these remain at the surface level. An encouragement of capacitive and non-discriminatory education for girls is hardly visible. This attitude leads to a substantial devaluation of their lives. There are also certain deep-rooted myths about the sexual lives of women which are happily projected like women’s declining sexual potency with increasing age. Hence, they need to be married off early.
A sweeping depreciation of values has taken place during the pandemic too, particularly in rural and semi-rural areas. During this time increasing poverty and lack of safe spaces led families to marry off their underage daughters. School closures worsened the situation for girls. Studies show that teenage pregnancies are caused due to an intersection of myriad factors. Inaccessibility to contraception and knowledge about health and lack of bodily autonomy led to misery for women. An analysis of data from more than 60.000 mother-child pairs in 2016 showed adolescent mothers are anemic and prone to malnutrition. It is more a matter of absence of choices for girls than about forced choices.
Breaking the ‘culture of silence’
Addressing teenage pregnancy requires creating a space for conversation with all sections of people, especially men, and being inclusive about it. Men are reluctant about the use of contraceptives. To achieve results in mitigating teenage pregnancy needs their help. A pre-requisite for eliminating this malaise is spreading girls’ education and providing basic and fundamental awareness about their health rights. A liberal mindset on the part of policymakers would go a long way in eliminating this social evil.
In modern times one sees a mushrooming of sex determination centres that operate illegally throughout India. These are a bane for women. After the pandemic, health infrastructure has started addressing issues that put the frontline female workforce in the line of fire. Detailed sensitization programmes for men can be encouraged too. It is a pre-requisite to reign in school dropouts of girls. The conversation on the reproductive health of women often excludes fathers, brothers and fathers-in-law. Often women face cultural, personal, and social barriers that impact their conversation with community members while spreading awareness. Recognizing that women are under duress, India launched the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health Strategy (2005-2013) and subsequently Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram, the national adolescent health programme (2014-present). However, the monitoring of these programmes was weak.
Teenage pregnancies are detrimental to the reproductive and sexual health of women and rob them of not only agency in their lives but also deprive them of fundamental and basic human rights. Their holistic growth is hampered and has a humongous social and emotional impact on them. With early marriages and pregnancies, their lives get fortified with such restrictions that it becomes very difficult to cut through the shackled existence.
With changing times, parents too need to get involved in talking about sexual health with children. We need to break the taboos attached to such pivotal issues. The famous Brazilian educator Paulo Freire had spoken about the "culture of silence" that has become a weapon in the hands of the oppressors, instilling a negative, passive, and suppressed self-image in the oppressed. There is a dire need to develop critical consciousness to counter this.
(The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jangipur College. Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at email@example.com).