The issue of imparting education on Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) has always been a topic of contestation in India and rest of the world. In 2016, when National Education Policy in India was being drafted, imparting issues of sex education was given importance, but emphasis was placed on banning the words ‘sex’ and ‘sexual’ in the final document by the government. The idea seems to be objectionable as it will encourage immoral behaviour among children. Also, in the name of sex education, often workshops on health and hygiene are conducted.
With existing taboos on imparting knowledge on sexual and reproductive health, it becomes difficult to impart similar knowledge to persons with disabilities due to unavailability of accessible teaching-learning methods, educational materials and unavailability of experts addressing SRH issues from the perspective of disability. Furthermore, eroticism is never considered to be a quality for disabled individuals. Instead, qualities like heroism, inspiring, divyang (divine), asexual, hypersexual are often used as adjectives. This implies that the notions towards disability have yet not moved forward from a rights-based perspective where sexual and reproductive health issues are to be considered for discussion.
Persons with disability are sexual beings, and they too have sexual desires and feelings, just like any other human being. With this premise, many organisations have come forward to address these issues through workshops/training organised specifically for persons with disabilities. But, the need to include the various other important stakeholders like caregivers, parents, educators in these forms of training are often ignored.
Deafblindness is a unique disability – a combination of visual and hearing impairment, where a person faces challenges in communication, mobility and accessing information. Being dependent for information on others, deafblindness becomes one of the most isolating disabilities. In such a situation where issues on sexual and reproductive health are addressed, the information received is often filtered and diluted by parents, caregivers, educators and other rehabilitation professionals. The information is filtered and diluted with many taboos associated with issues, cultural and societal myths and beliefs, limited understanding and information regarding the topic, gender stereotypes and with some individual inhibitions.
To address this, in January 2017, trainers like Smriti Dhingra and Sachin Rizal, from Sense India conducted a training organised by Centre for Disability in Development on Sexual and Reproductive Health Issues for the special educators working in the field of deafblindness.
It became a nail-biting and nerve-racking experience for the trainers to prepare for the training as Bangladesh is closely knit with culture and religion. The participants constituted an equal number of men and women, totalling 35 in number. During the four-day training, people had a discussion on ‘equality and equity’ to demonstrate various positions of individuals in the society where deafblind being most marginalised. Sessions on myth-busting gender were held to understand that women too have the liberty to express sexual desires and persons with disability can express their sexual desires, and most importantly, the last two days were focused on implementing the knowledge on sexual and reproductive health in practice from the perspective of deafblindness. “Women with disability are always left behind when compared to men with disability. Society doesn’t want women as its head, and when it comes to disabled women, they are not considered worthy of anything,” expressed a participant during one of the sessions.
The gender aspect was very crucial in the sessions as many female educators ignored their body rights and were unaware of some issues. Many cultural and religious taboos made participants reluctant to speak about matters of female masturbation, maintaining menstrual hygiene openly among male participants.
The participants, from the context of religion and culture, discussed how if a woman expresses her sexual desire, she is identified as somebody with bad character, unlike men.
Discussions were carried forward from the perspective of disability where participants understood the basic premise – disabled people are sexual beings, and they too can express their sexual desires.
During this extensive four-day session, educators narrated experiences that they had faced in the past but had no guidance on how to deal with them. For example, an educator said, “a deafblind woman was molested several times. Initially, she didn’t realise what was happening with her, but later she started enjoying the sexual act. This came to light when she went outside secretly to seek sexual pleasure from others. When the family tried to protect or stop her, she got violent.”
Another educator narrated how a deafblind man had a habit of removing his pants and playing with his private parts. Another shared how a deafblind man used to be aroused when he realised his female educator has come to teach him.
Days three and four were focused completely on disseminating knowledge on sexual and reproductive health issues, and implementing them through designing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for persons with deafblindness, while understanding the developmental milestones. “Deafblind children from three to six years should be taught about safe and unsafe touch,” said Mr. Sachin Rizal, a trainer from Sense India. “For deafblind children from six to 12 years, it is important to discuss safe and unsafe spaces and beginning of puberty,” said Ms Smriti Dhingra, trainer from Sense India.
The discussion on SRH must begin from the age of three with the concepts of safe and unsafe touch. After this, introductions to private and public spaces, puberty and understanding organs must be given. Topics like teaching about menstrual hygiene, talking about reproductive organs, changes in the mood were highlighted by the participants. From 12 years onward, the emphasis should be on dealing with emotions, masturbation, sexual desires and sex. Body mapping exercises were also held where educators got an idea how to inform a child and adult with deafblindness about these issues.
“We understand now that sex-education, does not only informs about the physical activity between man and woman. It is more than that. it is about understanding each other’s sexual and reproductive health issues, and it should be discussed from the day one of birth of a child,” said Mr. Masud, Special Educator.
Ms. Rakhi Barua, Centre for Disability in Development (CDD), emphasised on the importance of such training not only for special educators working with persons with deafblindness but also for the other rehabilitation professionals working in the field of disability. Also, while creating an understanding of sexual and reproductive health to educators, it becomes necessary to talk about the implementation aspect for persons with disabilities. With this training, educators would be able to develop IEPs keeping in mind the SRH domain at every developmental stage.