Based on several studies undertaken to understand the status of health, education and socio-economic factors affecting their development and opportunities, common situations faced by young people in India are described. Although the characters are fictitious, their circumstances are easily identifiable, especially in marginalised communities.
Low nutrition awareness and health education (An empty belly) – 19 year old Champa belongs to a small town in Odisha. The oldest of seven children born to parents, who work as manual labourers, Champa discontinued schooling when she could not pass matriculation. Since then, to help look after her younger siblings, she stayed at home doing housework. Although she watches television and films, she has limited exposure to information on nutrition, health or reproductive concerns. Taboos against discussion on sexual matters spread common beliefs that information given to young people encourages curiosity and makes them promiscuous.
Champa’s menstrual cycle came as a shock to her and she clearly believed she was dying, until her maternal aunt showed her how to use ‘cloth’. Apart from that, no one in her family has ever given her information about the natural changes in her body due to puberty because talking about it causes discomfort and embarrassment.
Since boys in her family are given priority in terms of nutrition and opportunities, Champa usually is one of the last to eat from the leftovers if any. Although barely 19, her thin frame and sallow cheeks betray the fatigue she often feels at the end of a day full of chores. She is unaware that this could be due to poor nutrition leading to nutritional anemia. Aware that she will soon be married, she would like to earn money for buying nice things.
However, she realizes that the only opportunity open to her is menial work either as a labourer or as a domestic helper. She hopes that she is lucky enough to find a husband who will allow her to work.
Lack of awareness on nutrition and health are further aggravated by poverty and gender imbalance where women and girls do not have control over economic resources. This results in widespread anaemia and low access to healthcare among young people, especially adolescent girls.
Kamli and Meera were barely 13 and 11, when they found themselves married to two brothers who lived in a village not far from theirs, in the state of Rajasthan. Two slight little waifs running all the way to school each day, they loved to draw and play in the mud. However one day, everything changed. Their father seemed pleased that he had to spend money on only one marriage ceremony for marrying off two daughters who would no longer be a burden on him.
Withdrawn from school, they lost all opportunities for employment or recreation. Because of stringent gender norms, mobility was restricted and they were groomed to be submissive that further limited their capabilities for development. All of a sudden, even the clothes they wore or the manner in which they talked or walked was regulated, so much so that they had to cover even their faces in the presence of adult males.
In a region where violence and apathy towards women and girls are met with complacence, early marriage often seems the only way to ensure a girl’s safety although it offers no guarantee that she will not face abuse within the marriage. A woman faces abuse in many forms because she is regarded as helpless.
Early marriage results in early onset of sexual activity leading to pregnancy and health complications at an age when a girl has not attained physical, mental or emotional maturity.
Soon after she was married, 13 year old Kamli had her first menstrual cycle. Ill equipped to deal with changes in her body, she was unaware of pregnancy and pregnancy related issues that she would soon have to face. Confined within the four walls, she lost all avenues for developing herself. Although she tirelessly did all the house work, there was never any money in her hands due to which most of her basic needs remained unfulfilled. Education, recreation and entertainment remained a forgotten dream.
Now at 19, she often wonders why her body is constantly besieged with tiredness and even though she does not want to get pregnant again, she fervently hopes that her fourth child will be a boy so that she can request the village doctor to sterilize her. The much simpler male sterilization or using contraceptives is not even an option in her husband’s mind because of widespread misconception that they are all associated with losing masculinity.
Although she knows that her husband has extra-marital relations, she is unaware of infections like HIV, STDs/RTIs that could be passed on to her. A victim of domestic violence, she suffers from depression because she was forced to abort her female foetus without qualified medical help and since then suffers from severe abdominal pain.
Initially her husband used to try to help her, but other family members always discouraged him saying that these are women’s concerns and best left to older women’s discretion. This clearly means that where her sexual or reproductive health risks are concerned, Kamli has no information or choice. Due to gender discrimination against women, her fears are neither acknowledged nor addressed within the family or community.
Medical termination of pregnancy due to sex selection where the female foetus is aborted remains an endemic problem in India despite efforts of the government to curb the practice. Besides, due to social norms, husbands and other males in the family are not involved in ‘female problems’. In countries like USA and Germany, counselling for couples is imparted by trained Government or social service practitioners or religious establishments like the church, to both males and females, where responsibility of both in making a marriage successful, is emphasized.
21 year old Salma lives in an urban slum in the suburbs of a city in Bihar. Although she works as a telephone operator, her pay is lower than her male counterparts. Afraid that she will be laid off from work, she was sexually exploited by her employer. When she approached local authorities for help, she was shocked by their apathy. Even though she noticed some abnormal vaginal discharge, she hesitated to seek help. The local health center treats only pregnancy related issues of married women and does not offer any information on nutrition, health or contraception for unmarried young girls like her. Her parents, especially her father thinks that sexuality education is best imparted in schools or that their children will automatically discover such things once they are married. Since they are saving for her dowry to help her get a ‘good’ husband as per societal norms, Salma was not allowed to pursue her interests in sports or computers. Her parents are also largely unaware about the kind of sexual experiences that their children may have already had. They may not also know about the incomplete or incorrect information that their children may be obtaining from friends, popular media or other sources. Shrouded in a culture of silence, Salma prefers to keep her problems to herself for fear of social stigma.
Due to lack of vocational training, it is difficult to get employment in the organised sector Most young people can easily pick up odd jobs that are readily available in the informal sector, but offer no security . Although Salma is careful, she is aware of how young girls in her area are often duped and taken away with promises of good pay, only to be forcibly pushed into the vicious circle of bonded labor and flesh trade.
In contrast, most adolescent girls in more gender-sensitive progressive societies around the world are exposed to life skills including sex education and are able to make more informed choices to safeguard themselves against harmful trends and practices. In addition, a more proactive public support and security system to address specific gender related issues are in place in countries like United Kingdom and Australia.
Young, independent and inquisitive, 22 year old Hari has come to the city in search of work from his village in Andhra Pradesh. A few months back, pressure from his family forced him to get married. He had not wanted to marry because he was still not sure what he wanted to do with his life. When he left the village, his young bride stayed behind with his parents since she was pregnant.
Being a school drop-out, he has been doing manual work in the city, that leaves him tired and depressed. With no other outlet like sports or recreation, he has picked up harmful habits like intake of alcohol, drugs and violence.
Due to a lack of vocational skills, support or exposure, he had to give up his dream of opening a business of his own. Frustrated with life, he has befriended several other youths from other rural areas who have come to the city dreaming of a better life. With his first salary, he has bought a cell phone on which he often watches pornography.
Although Hari’s first sexual experience was before marriage at the age of 16, he now regularly visits sex workers. Widespread misconceptions lead him to believe that he cannot get AIDS infection and that condoms are unnecessary and diminish pleasure. This makes him unaware of the hazards of unprotected sex. His close friend confided in him about certain irritable symptoms in his private parts for which a local remedy was secretly administered by a traditional healer.
As the eldest son in the family, he is expected to send money home every month which is a burden on his uneducated shoulders. Given a considerable amount of freedom in contrast to girls in his community, he enjoys his mobility and interaction with other people in the city. However, in the absence of a regular support system from his family or society, he does not have access to information on health, nutrition, life skill education and opportunities for development. This pushes him towards harmful behaviour like extra marital relations and domestic violence that is quite common in his community. Although his father sometimes awkwardly tries to explain things to him, the lack of a gender-sensitive attitude, and medically correct information are serious drawbacks.
The situation for his male counterpart in a developed country is very different where most adolescent boys and girls have biology and life skill education as part of their school curriculum. Sensitive issues and queries on sexual and reproductive health are openly addressed and appropriately connected to broader issues on general health, responsibility in relationships and overall well being of an individual. Apart from that vocational skills increase their chances of employability as they grow older.