India’s Moral Panic About Teen Sexuality Is a Public Health Crisis
In an incident that’s come to be immortalized online as the “Bengaluru bag check,” authorities in a Bengaluru school found a list of prohibited items during a surprise check of students’ backpacks: condoms, oral contraceptive pills, cigarettes, alcohol, and whiteners. Media reports and social media conversations about the incident betrayed shock and dismay: these were children in classes nine and 10, and all the items recovered from their possession induced a moral panic. Except — finding condoms and contraceptive pills should have been a teaching moment; they’re distinctly different from substances, and the mass panic tells a story of an emerging public health crisis from shrouding teen sexuality in shame and secrecy.
Teenagers do explore their sexuality. In India, the third National Family Health Survey report– spanning 2005 and 2006 — had found (link) 13% of girls have sexual intercourse before the age of 15, and 43% do before 18. A moral panic over the fact isn’t going to stop it. But that kind of a response does impact the future of children in devastating ways.
Here’s a look at the stats. According to a 2021 report by the Guttmacher Institute, unmet contraception needs are highest among adolescents than anyone else in the reproductive age bracket. Pregnancies and childbirth are also the leading causes of death globally among adolescent girls aged 15-19, according to a World Health Organization report. Further, the Union Health Ministry expressed concern earlier this year about teen pregnancies — as per estimates, India accounts for 11% of the world’s teenage pregnancies.
We don’t have a robust sex education policy either. In 2005, India implemented the Adolescence Education Programme developed by the Department of Education and the National AIDS Control Organisation. Designed to teach high school students about their sexuality, sexually transmitted infections, and contraception. Eventually, however, 12 states in India stopped the program citing “morally objectionable” content — the program, then, became diluted, with words like “intercourse,” “masturbate,” and “condoms,” removed from the syllabus.
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The government also continues to impose further restrictions on information about sexuality. In 2017, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banned condom ads on television from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. — noting that they were “indecent.”
Moreover, access to reproductive care in India is limited to a fault. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that the group that stands to lose the most is teen girls: they face deadly health risks as a result of inadequate access to reproductive services. Criminalizing teenage sex, coupled with a legal system that makes a minor’s access to abortion part of a criminal justice process, makes abortion a terrifying prospect — further hindering help-seeking.
This means that teenagers in India not only lack the education, but also the means to access help. And as reports in the past have shown, incomplete information can have negative health impacts: for instance, many young women rely on emergency contraceptive pills too often, to the detriment of their health.
Not providing a safe space to talk about sex also ensures that teen survivors of sexual assault are left unmoored and without adequate support. Take the instance of a class eight girl in Odisha, who delivered a baby as a result of being sexually assaulted. Another girl in the same state was hospitalized after an abortion pill caused her health to deteriorate. Teen pregnancies also impact girls’ education — as was the case with a minor who was sent home by school authorities after she was found to be pregnant.
“Although there is increasing evidence of risky consensual sex among young people in developing countries, non-consensual sexual experiences among them have rarely been studied and few interventions have been designed to protect them from the risks of such experiences,” notes a 2005 report on adolescent reproductive and sexual health in India. “The lack of a supportive environment and trusted adults and peers to consult on sexual health matters may also enhance young people’s (and particularly young women’s) vulnerability to coercive sexual relations. And finally, institutional indifference – at the community, school, law enforcement and health sector levels – can inhibit help seeking,” the report adds.
Open conversations and meaningful engagement with sex works. The Netherlands, which has among the most liberal sex education policies, also has the lowest rate of teen pregnancies in the world. And although India’s rate of teen pregnancies has seen a slow decline, policymakers stress the importance of tangible actions that don’t stigmatize teenagers further. “Interventions that have already been proven effective, such as school-based sexual education programs, adolescent-friendly reproductive health services, and cash transfer programs, should be implemented as a priority,” said researchers of a Lancet study on the same. Further, all the roadblocks toward reproductive health only increase adolescents’ dependence on male family members — which could curtail their autonomy even further.
Instead of taking the opportunity to teach children about safe and consensual sex, then, the shame surrounding the Bengaluru backpack check only reinforces negative stereotypes about adolescent sexuality that can have scarring impacts. Reports say that the children, in question, were sent for behavioral counselling — a move that further pathologizes a normal interest and curiosity in sex, and could have a devastating impact on the agency, mental health, and educational outcomes of those involved.