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TBI Blogs: India’s Urban Youth Lack Credible Information on Sexual Health, but Social Media Can Help

With sexuality continuing to be a taboo topic for most Indians, the country’s urban young have little access to credible information on sexual health. Chandrima Das, Associate Director of FSG Mumbai, talks about why governments, funders, and nonprofits must look to the internet as a possible solution.

As many as 232 million young people in India between the ages of 15 and 24 are in the process of discovering their sexuality – in the shadow of tremendous stigma.

In 2015, FSG spoke to 500 of these young men and women in Mumbai and Jaipur to assess their unfulfilled reproductive and sexual health needs, and identify potential solutions.

Our research, which was supported by the Packard Foundation, confirmed that many prevailing misconceptions, beliefs, and attitudes regarding sex and sexuality among young people are similar to what one may find among older generations.

The good news is that a solution may lie in an unexpected place – the smartphones and tablets these young men and women carry. India’s rapidly growing internet user base (currently 433 million) may well hold the key to a healthier, more aware, and more empowered generation.

Playing taboo…and losing

Improved reproductive health outcomes are a shot in the dark for many young people, with no access to credible information or quality products. Three factors play a key role in the experiences that the young in urban India have with respect to their reproductive health – their gender, marital status, and the type of city they live in.

Improved reproductive health outcomes are a shot in the dark for many young people.

1. Strongly gendered experiences lead to different outcomes

Young women in particular are limited in exercising agency, and face significantly higher levels of stigma in trying to access better information, products, or services. “Everyone other than my friends will perceive me as immoral if they find out that I am sexually active,” said an 18-year-old girl in Mumbai.

2. A couple’s marital status significantly affects outcomes

Unmarried couples are not always prepared with condoms at the time of intercourse. They often don’t know where to anonymously and discreetly obtain any products, and fear being judged by providers like pharmacists and doctors.

Young married couples in this age group often do not intend to use any methods to prevent pregnancy, even though they may want to delay having children. “The local USHA worker did tell me about delaying our second child, but I feel very uncomfortable having this discussion in front of my mother-in-law,” says a 19-year-old housewife in Jaipur.

3. The advantages of living in a more cosmopolitan environment

Young people in Mumbai had better access to information and services compared to those in Jaipur. They also have higher financial agency and mobility, leading to greater awareness and a stronger voice in the use of contraceptives.

A lack of awareness, and high stigma around obtaining basic information, quality services, and products, drives much of these sub-par outcomes.

There is a need to foster greater awareness of the risks of unprotected intercourse. Credible sources of information must also discuss correct usage of reproductive health products, and the right avenues to seek treatment.

Reproductive Health adolescent girls at a playground
Photo Courtesy: Charlotte Anderson Photography

Hitting the “share” and “like” buttons

The solution may lie in India’s rapidly expanding internet user base, which will likely reach 636 million by 2021.

Our research indicates that urban youth access information in new ways, particularly on the internet, and often through personal devices. As many as 77 % of male respondents and 54 % of female respondents use the internet. 59 % of them access it on a personal device, such as a mobile phone or tablet.

Urban youth are accessing information in new ways, particularly on the internet, and often through personal devices.

“My girlfriend worried that she was pregnant, and didn’t know how to buy or use a pregnancy kit. We used Google on my phone to figure it out,” said a 19-year-old in Jaipur.

Credible and interactive platforms can leverage this tendency to find information online to address the information gaps in reproductive health. The following characteristics of internet-centric channels work particularly well when it comes to building awareness:

• Anonymity

Platforms such as Menstrupedia don’t require their users to disclose identifies, providing a safe space to ask otherwise uncomfortable questions.

Providing a forum for people to post anonymous questions reduces the stigma a young person seeking information might otherwise face. The answers may even benefit many others with the same query on their minds.

• Engaging and shareable content

Providing information through youth-oriented multimedia content, primarily through online channels, is an especially engaging way of connecting with this segment. They are more receptive to multimedia content like videos and comics, and will likely share such content with their peers.

Much of the content on Agents of Ishq, a multi-media project about “sex, love, and desire”, consists of images, videos, and podcasts in Hindi and English, sprinkled liberally with humour to make it appealing for this generation.

• Wide and cost-effective dissemination

Credible online content leverages the growing use of internet-enabled mobile devices, particularly among young men. These channels also enable wide dissemination to large populations of youth at no additional cost.

With 58,000 subscribers on YouTube, and 70 % of their views coming from mobile devices, mDhil’s educational videos about health in multiple languages, including reproductive and sexual health, have been successful in garnering eyeballs. Their video on sex and STIs in Hindi has received more than 1.2 million views on YouTube.

These models have clearly had some success initially, skipping the traditional community or PHC-driven models. Thus, the government, funders, non-profits, and social enterprises’ funders must look to the internet and social media. These channels can help improve knowledge and behaviour on these important topics.

About the author: Chandrima Das is an Associate Director at FSG in Mumbai.

Adapted from an article originally published on the India Development Review website. Like what you read? Learn more about what’s happening in development in India. Have an idea? Tell us what you want to read.

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