Section 377 continues to remain on the country’s statute books but the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare seems to have a contrarian stand to it. While 377 criminalizes homosexuality as ‘unnatural’, a new resource kit released by the ministry is telling young people that it is okay to “feel attraction” for people from the same sex, among other things.
The Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, launched the SAATHIYA Resource Kit, which includes the ‘Saathiya Salah’ Mobile App, on February 20. The kit is meant for adolescent peer educators (Saathiyas) who have to facilitate access to adolescent health services and impart knowledge on adolescent health issues to their peer group under the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) programme. Improving teen sexual and reproductive health is an objective of the programme.
Three statements in the resource material, particularly highlight the dichotomy of the government’s views. “Yes, adolescents frequently fall in love. They can feel attraction for a friend or any individual of the same or opposite sex,” a paragraph in the material reads. It adds that relationships are “based on mutual consent” and that “boys should understand that when a girl says ‘no’ it means ‘no'”. Another paragraph, which discourages labelling people as ‘sissy’ or ‘tomboy’, says that being “rude and insensitive is not a sign of masculinity” and that it is “alright for boys to like things like cooking and designing that are normally associated with girls”.
The material is a clear departure from the government’s legal stand on homosexual relationships where it is yet to give complete legitimacy. As per law, marital rape is not punishable. But the material clearly preaches about consent in relationships – something that again reveals the dichotomy of the government’s stand on the issue.
However, this is not the first time the health ministry has taken a view contrary to what is considered the government’s legal stand on these issues. At least since the second phase of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP), which began in 1999, the ministry has focussed on working with “MSMs (Men who have sex with men)” as a target group. This targeted intervention at least recognises homosexual people as ‘natural’. This legal dichotomy, arising out of differences between NACP policies and Section 377, was also pointed out by the NAZ Foundation in a 2001 petition to the Delhi High Court.
RKSK, the adolescent health programme launched in January 2014 in collaboration with UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), seems to take a progressive step beyond the NACP policies. It seeks to realign “existing clinic-based curative approach to focus on a more holistic model”. The Saathiya resource material too, apart from approving masturbation, promoting safe-sex practices, providing information on STDs, dealing with addiction, etc, seems to be a move in that direction.