By Karil Soral:
A couple of weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend a ‘dialogue’ on adolescent sexual rights and health. The workshop was held in one of the most reputed medical institutions of the country and the panel included some of the most reputed doctors. Among the participants present, were also adolescents from various non-government organizations and youth activists. After a brief introduction, the dialogue started with doctors taking turns in showcasing their presentations. The agenda of these presentations seemed to focus on the gap that exists between adolescents and service providers when it comes to the former’s sexual and reproductive health. There was a lot of talk about the social stigma, taboo etc., that the doctors stated was one of the main reasons for this gap. A lot of quantitative data and analytical data was shown. But, the questions that I had as an adolescent remained unanswered.
This ‘dialogue’, as it progressed further, left me and my fellow adolescents, lost for words. While the ‘dialogue’ sometimes seemed almost apologetic perhaps because some of these doctors knew that their presentations had been useless for the people for whom they were meant, another set of doctors didn’t seem to think that way. This latter group of doctors (which included both the panellists as well as participants) stated that “Premarital sex should be prevented” because it leads to unwanted pregnancies and this leads to further complications, like abortion. The argument they made seemed right for a part because they talked about the medical consequences for the adolescent partners – that, I think, is a legitimate question. However, they further talked about how service providers should give counselling to these adolescents. This is where I went, “Hang on! This doesn’t feel right!” I couldn’t understand what these doctors said. They apparently were making the point that adolescents sometimes take “rash decisions” because they are the “most vulnerable age group to substance abuse”, “They don’t have mental maturity” and my favourite – “Adolescents have behavioural issues” etc. I felt that there was a guilt factor which was thrusted on adolescents and that this age group was being represented as an irresponsible and irrational lot. And this was the view of some of the most renowned doctors of our country, practicing in the best of medical institutions, as well!
At the end of every presentation, some of us tried to raise some questions but they remained unanswered. Questions were asked as to why premarital sex was condemned. Why is it that sex only after marriage is acceptable? Why is marriage being kept at a pedestal? Is it not true that unwanted pregnancies occur after marriage as well? Is it not true that marital rape is also a reality? Why didn’t any of these panellists talk about these things as well? As we started asking these questions, the replies of the doctors seemed unsatisfactory. One of them replied that, “We have a protocol to follow. We go just by that!” This last reply, I think, gave me the answer to the question, as to why adolescents refrain from visiting service providers when it comes to their sexual health. This further made me understand just how much of a difference there is between the language used in these written protocols and reality. But it made me feel sorry for these doctors as well. They were only following the official framework. What else they could do? Really, what else they could do? You are people of science, and scientific progress is based on research. Why is it that after becoming doctors you don’t question these protocols and make some changes? Why is it that the majority of the questioning comes from social activists and philanthropists?
This further reminds me of the interaction I had with some of the doctors after the ‘dialogue’ (and that is how I missed out on my samosa and tea). I remember attending a LGBTQ lecture series recently organised by one of the embassies after the Orlando shooting incident. A lot of the discussion there focused on how religion is the biggest roadblock when it comes to sexuality and the LGBTQ movement. The doctors with whom I interacted after the ‘dialogue’ also blatantly accused religion of being the biggest roadblock when it comes to sexual health and rights. Now, I think this argument is a little naïve. True, religion definitely has had a massive role to play in the taboo attached to sexuality, homophobia etc. But my question is, is religion the only factor? Hasn’t medical science also played a role in the whole stigmatisation of homosexuality? The tags of ‘sane/insane’, ‘sane’ for those who are heterosexual and ‘insane’ for ‘homosexuals’, and the tags of ‘mentally fit’ and ‘mentally unfit’ also had a role to play in this process. I am questioning medical science as well and I think this questioning should also be done by the service providers. The best thing about science is that it allows you to question constantly and that is the basis of scientific advance.
Coming back to the ‘dialogue’, I felt that there is a serious need for interdisciplinary studies in our country. As long as people on both sides won’t work and understand each other I don’t think any progress is possible. Service providers will keep reverting back to protocols and, as a result, the adolescents will keep on refraining to visit them. This could further lead to more damage as some of the youth leaders present in the ‘dialogue’ showcased, with the help of a movie, that young people resort to their siblings or the internet for advice which may or may not be helpful. Also, I found that the ‘dialogue’ focused too much on quantitative data and the perspective of service providers. The perspective of the adolescents is also very important and though this ‘dialogue’ tried to do so, a lot more needs to be done.